‘God created war so Americans could learn geography’ (1)
On 3 October, taking another step on the road to a new cold war, Russia suspended the 16-year bilateral plutonium disposition agreement with the US. Are the two countries sleepwalking into a war that could cross the nuclear threshold – remembering that those sleepwalking are unaware of it at the time?
One possible pathway to slide into war would be to act on the growing chorus of calls in the Washington beltway for a no-fly-zone over Syria. In a bon mot often misattributed to Mark Twain that is so good it deserves to be true, God is said to have created war so Americans could learn geography. Russia–US tensions are rising again and could boil over if Hillary Clinton becomes president, which seems all but certain.
The threat of war comes less from Russian revanchist or imperial ambitions and more from the US insistence that no other power must have the economic resilience and military capability to resist Washington’s will, anywhere. Rooted in the triumphalism of US supremacy in the post-Cold War unipolar moment, this is both unsustainable and increasingly risky as US primacy wanes against the steady accretion of economic, military and diplomatic power by China and Russia’s recovery. The fierce US resistance of the inexorable tide of history also spells dangers for Australia.
History of US use of force and spread of military bases
The US has become an increasingly war-prone country. According to a Congressional Research Service report of 7 October, the US used force overseas 215 times from 1798 to 1989, or 1.1 times per year on average. From 1991 to 2015 – the period since the end of the Cold War – it has deployed force abroad on 160 occasions, for an annual average of 6.4. This might explain why a 2013 WIN/Gallup poll of opinion in 65 countries found the world’s biggest threat to world peace was believed to be the US (24%), followed by Pakistan, China, North Korea, Israel and Iran (between 5-8% each).
It is worth looking at a map of the world and pondering on the number of US military bases and overseas troop presence in locations far removed from the homeland, compared to Russian and Chinese foreign military deployments (excluding UN peacekeeping operations). The US military is deeply entrenched in a global archipelago of numerous bases spread across almost forty countries. The exact number is not easy to ascertain. In 2010 the Department of Defense reported a total of 662 US military bases in 38 countries. According to investigative reporter Nick Turse, the number varies from 460 to over 1,000.
Exhibits A and B in the case against Russia are its aggression in Ukraine and bombings in Syria. In the context of the 1982 Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger warned that no great power retreats forever. The hostile US policy towards Russia since the 1990s has ignored this key canon of great power relations.
Discussion of what Graham Alison calls the Thucydides trap has become fashionable in foreign policy circles. This is the sober reminder that of sixteen cases of power transitions in the last 500 years, twelve resulted in warfare. This discussion has largely focussed on China.
Most analysts have forgotten the rarity of how the Cold War ended in 1989–90. The Soviet Union, which still retained nuclear deterrent forces but would cease to exist in December 1991, never admitted it had been defeated, and President George H W Bush was careful not to claim victory. Others were not so restrained.
As the successor state, Russia acquiesced in the terms of a new world order and agreed to cooperate with the West to help stabilise post-Cold War Europe. Since then the West has treated Russia with contempt born of victor’s arrogance. The relentless eastward expansion of NATO into parts of the former Soviet empire broke US promises made at Malta on the basis of which Moscow had peacefully withdrawn Soviet troops from Eastern Europe, permitted Germany’s reunification and accepted united Germany as a member of NATO – the deep historical scars of French and German invasions of Russia notwithstanding.
The West rubbed Russia’s nose repeatedly in the dirt of its historic Cold War defeat, disdainful of its interests and complaints. Russia was looted by oligarchs abetted by US crony capitalists, millions of ethnic Russians were abandoned and relegated to second class status in former Soviet republics, and Russian voice, vote and interests were repeatedly brushed aside.
In Ukraine in 2014 the West supported street mobs who ousted the elected pro-Russian president and installed a pro-Western government. Yet the West seemed surprised that a resentful Russia carried a grievance and reacted like a great power when a coup was engineered in its front garden. It was payback time. When Moscow responded along predictable lines given the history and geopolitics of the region and re-absorbed Crimea, the West, having played hardball and lost, threw a hissy fit.
Both President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were quick to recall NATO actions in helping detach Kosovo from Serbia in 1999. It is not at all hard to imagine hardline US reactions to equivalent China- or Russia-fomented instability, followed by the installation of anti-American regimes, in Canada and Mexico. All great powers, the US included, have strategic interests and pursue imperial not ethical foreign policies.
Western forces have intervened in the Syrian conflict, without the consent of its legal government, with arms for anti-government rebels and air strikes against Islamic State (IS) targets inside Syria. Clinton’s leaked emails confirm that US allies Saudi Arabia and Turkey have funded IS and the Obama administration has been aware of this. Russia’s air intervention in Syria requested by and in support of the Assad regime – its first military intervention since 1989 outside the borders of the former Soviet Union – marked the breakout of Moscow from the post-Cold War international order constructed by the West and imposed on Russia. Moscow was no longer prepared, concludes Dmitri Trenin, ‘to submit to the norms and practices laid down, policed, and arbitrated by the West’. Russia’s UK ambassador has responded to Western criticisms by claiming that Moscow’s intervention had ‘saved Syria from terrorist takeover’ while Washington had failed to separate moderate anti-Assad rebels from hardcore jihadists.
‘God created war so Americans could learn geography’ (2)
The dismissive treatment of Russia since the end of the Cold War in Europe left the US ill-prepared for dealing with the rise of China in the Pacific. Historically, Washington has neither treated another country as an equal nor confronted a multidimensional, sophisticated and comprehensive national power like China. As China fills out as a major power, uncontested US primacy is simply not sustainable. China has been a continental power but now its maritime interests and activities are growing. Its expanding long-range strike and air and naval power projection capabilities pose a potential threat to the era of regional stability underwritten by US primacy. Its growing blue water navy and long-range missiles could also put Australia within range of China’s military.
In Chinese eyes Australia appears in response to have joined the US in a de facto containment strategy, as indicated by public statements in both capitals, the US pivot to Asia, the decision to station a contingent of US marines at Darwin and the build-up of military links. What Americans portray as ‘rebalancing’ can be (mis)read as ‘counterbalancing’ by Chinese who will respond accordingly.
A Clinton administration and the Washington playbook
According to critics, under the influence of the military-industrial complex the US military is in more places than it should be, the country makes more weapons than it needs, and it sells more weapons than is prudent. It has been engaged in a seemingly permanent war since 2001 and continually bombs multiple countries simultaneously. A retired US ambassador draws a link between the prevalence of violence at home and the frequent resort to the use of force overseas: ‘we are a killer nation, at home and abroad’.
While Americans see their policy as springing from universal idealism, many others perceive it as rooted in sanctimonious arrogance. As with national and global surveillance, Americans have fallen into the trap of interfering anywhere and everywhere not because it is right in principle or serves a coherent strategic purpose, but because they can, insensitive and indifferent to how threatening or offensive their actions are to others.
Even President Barack Obama complained that the default Washington foreign-policy establishment ‘playbook’ is militarised responses to foreign policy crises. Clinton is very much a part of that Washington elite’s groupthink consensus. As Secretary of State, she was consistently more hawkish than Obama so it is no surprise that a long list of high-profile neocons have pledged to vote for her rather than the relatively isolationist Donald Trump. There has been some worrying speculation that one candidate for National Security Adviser or even Secretary of State in a Clinton administration would be Victoria Nuland, the point person in charge of Ukraine policy in the US State Department who notoriously said to the US ambassador in Kiev ‘F..k the EU‘ in a phone conversation in February 2014. She used to be deputy national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney in the Bush administration and is married to the prominent neoconservative intellectual Robert Kagan.
Ironically, Clinton has gained traction in the campaign by stoking anxieties over the erratic and temperamentally volatile Trump’s finger on the nuclear button. Clinton’s response to the spate of damning hacked emails published by WikiLeaks has been to distract attention from her sins to unproven allegations of Russia interfering in domestic US elections (which Washington of course would never do anywhere) and attack Trump’s cosiness with Putin, thus heightening US–Russian tensions still more. The optimistic thought is that given her policy smarts and extensive experience, once Clinton has achieved her presidential ambition she will rise above her past limitations and prove a wise global stateswoman.
Implications for Australia
Australia’s alliance with the US continues to shape its China policy and its recent hard line against Russia has been framed by an airplane tragedy. Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down on 17 July 2014 near Donetsk, Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers and crew, including several Australians. The government’s tough rhetoric against Moscow for this alleged criminal act played well in domestic Australian politics. But the loss of MH17 was not the first case of a civilian airliner being shot down. The best known comparable tragedy in which the US military was directly culpable (unlike MH17, where the Russian military is alleged to be indirectly complicit for supplying the rebels who did the shooting with the lethal arms) is the shooting down by USS Vincennes of Iran Air flight 655 on 3 July 1988 as it flew a scheduled daily route from Tehran to Dubai. The ship’s captain was neither rebuked nor punished but awarded a medal.
Historical amnesia might also explain the puzzle of US policy towards Russia. America provided largely enlightened global leadership for several decades after the Second World War and constructed the liberal international order we live in today. The world is better for the manner in which the Cold War was fought and which side won; today’s world would have been a much harsher jungle for all countries otherwise. That said, victory produced triumphalism and a belief in American exceptionalism whereby international law and global norms applied only to others. US double standards extend across a broad front in world affairs.
Against this larger geopolitical backdrop, a whole generation of American politicians and officials has grown up treating Russia as a defeated, has-been power whose interests can be brushed aside. Several hard-headed realists with experience and knowledge of how relations with Moscow were managed peacefully through the Cold War tension and crises have expressed uneasiness at the loss of institutional memory but seem to lack a constituency inside the current policymakers in either major party.
Led by the US, the West arrogated the right to be the arbiter of permissible conduct for itself and for others. As that world fades into the sunset the West is losing the monopoly on writing and policing global rules, yet behaves on occasion as if it is in denial of the loss of unchallengeable power. The danger of an unwanted and destructive war lies both in this insistence on continued US exceptionalism and self-belief in Western virtue, and in belligerent action by Russia and China.
In a parallel development, where formerly Australia’s US alliance guaranteed our security, today it can also multiply threats to our security. This does not mean Australia has to shed its alliance. It does mean Australia must outgrow the psychology of client dependency and decide on issues of war and peace in different theatres through an exercise of independent judgment. Canada’s example vis-à-vis the Iraq war shows that any resulting turbulence in relations with Washington will be minor and temporary.
(Tony Kevin assisted me in comments on this article.)
Ramesh Thakur, a former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General, is professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.