War or Peace in the Trump Era

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Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump by Donkey Hotey via Flickr.

Former Secretary of Defense William Perry has long been warning that nuclear war is more likely now than during the Cold War. Now we face the added uncertainty of Donald Trump taking our already militarized government to new heights with increased military spending and by stocking his regime with an unprecedented number of generals. We also find ourselves in a hall of mirrors with a president who lies out of all sides of his mouth and contradicts himself from moment to moment, and who apparently is not on the same page with his secretaries of state and defense.

Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are committed to ending the post-war liberal democratic order, with Trump praising his new best friend in Moscow while criticizing Angela Merkel as German elections approach. Adding to the surrealism, Putin has joined Trump in the lie that the Donald “won a convincing” election victory, and gold coins emblazoned with Trump’s image are being minted in Moscow.

But, it is difficult to see into the future when Trump’s picks for secretaries of war and state speak about the importance of NATO and the need to be tough with Russia, while their boss challenges these commitments. Yet, nominee for secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s Exxon-Mobil has long sought an end to the sanctions against Russia in order to open vast new oil fields. And then we have the right-wing Republicans from John McCain to Max Boot and many Democrats committed to investigating the Russian sabotage of the election, a break-in that was more successful and damaging than Watergate.

We don’t know if we had a Manchurian candidate and now a Manchurian president. Nor do we really know who will be leading U.S. foreign and military policy formulation. Just last weekend we watched the rise and fall of Trump’s ignorant and improvisational bid to trade ending sanctions against Russia for a mutual reduction of superpower nuclear arsenals. Trump supports spending for the trillion-dollar nuclear triad, but he has been silent about the quadrupling U.S. military spending in Europe, the deployment of U.S. troops to Poland, and the presence of first-strike-related U.S. missile defenses in Romania and soon in Poland.

Putin’s Ambitions

Putin is no innocent in an era when U.S., Russia and Chinese relations resemble the rules of the games among Mafia Dons. To counter NATO expansion and its provocative military exercises, Russia has launched its own massive military exercises, deployed nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad between Poland and Lithuania, is about to deploy new Topol ICBMs, and apparently has already begun meddling in the German and French elections to unseat Chancellor Merkel and to promote the neo-fascist Marine LePen,

This is a dangerous era with similarities to the period before the First World War. The world is marked by rising and declining powers – especially the U.S. and Russia – anxious to retain or expand their privilege and power. We have arms races with new technologies, resurgent and in some cases neo-fascist nationalism, territorial disputes, resource competition, complex and increasingly fluid alliance arrangements, economic integration and competition, aggressive autocratic leaders and wild card actors, certainly including Trump. These dynamics won’t disappear even if Trump and Putin find themselves in bed together, along with those women of the night whose virtues Putin has praised.

Although the U.S. elite – including Trump – remains committed to U.S. “primacy” and is preparing vast increases in U.S. military spending, the Russian elite remains scarred by the memories of devastating invasions of Russia from the west by Napoleon, the Kaiser, and Hitler. But it is not all defense. Putin is committed to restoring Russia’s 20th century sphere of influence, if not its empire, whose roots trace back to Kievian Rus, as well as restoring Crimea as Russia’s warm water port from the 19th century. It’s no wonder that with NATO expansion and Washington’s conventional, high-tech, and space weapons superiority, Putin warned us three years ago that “If you compress the spring all the way…it will snap back hard.” That snapping apparently hit our political system when and where most of us were not looking.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev correctly pointed to the roots of the current crisis when he castigated U.S. post-Cold War “triumphalism,” the treatment of Russia like a “dismissed serf,” and NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders despite the 1991 Bush-Gorbachev agreement not to move NATO a centimeter closer to Moscow.

NATO’s Ambitions

You don’t have to embrace Putin to acknowledge that NATO was founded “to keep the Germans down, the Russians out and the Americans in.” NATO’s founding led directly to the creation of the Warsaw Pact, and NATO’s recent expansion has been less than benign.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, once President Carter’s national security advisor, argued that whoever dominated the Eurasian heartland would be the world’s dominant power. To project coercive power into the Eurasian heartland as an “island power,” not located in Eurasia, the U.S. requires, he asserted, toeholds on Eurasia’s western, southern, and eastern peripheries. NATO provides that toehold, he wrote, with “vassal state” NATO allies making possible “entrench[ment of] American political influence and military power on the Eurasian mainland.”

Despite his campaign rhetoric, this is not something Trump is ready to surrender. The British press reports that Trump’s people are signaling that Europe can either have the European Army that Germany and France are planning in the wake of Brexit, or it can have NATO, but not both.

Beyond the ostensible goal of containing the Soviet Union, NATO made it possible to integrate European governments, economies, militaries, technologies, and societies into U.S.-dominated systems. It has ensured U.S. access to military bases for interventions across the Greater Middle East and Africa. And, as Michael T. Glennon wrote, with the 1999 war against Serbia, the U.S. and NATO “with little discussion and less fanfare … effectively abandoned the old U.N. Charter rules that strictly limit international intervention in local conflicts…in favor of a vague new system that is much more tolerant of military intervention but has few hard and fast rules.”

It was the Ukraine crisis, which was not precipitated by Moscow, that snapped Putin’s spring. Ukraine was (and still is) an E.U. and NATO aspirant nation. Leading up to the Maidan revolution, Washington and the E.U. poured billions of dollars into nurturing Ukrainian allies to turn the former Soviet republic toward the West. Then came the European Union’s ultimatum that Ukraine could take the next step toward E.U. membership only by burning its bridges to Moscow. Eastern Ukraine has been economically tied to Russia for decades and religiously for centuries. As tensions built in Kiev, CIA Director Brennan, Assistant Secretary of State Nuland – famous for her “fuck the E.U.” disrespect of Washington’s vassals – and Senator McCain journeyed to the Maidan to encourage revolution. When the shooting began, the U.S. and the E.U. conveniently failed to hold their Ukrainian allies to the previously negotiated power-sharing agreement.

From early on, the realistic alternative was creation of a neutral Ukraine, tied economically to both the E.U. and Russia. Despite the far right here in the U.S. (apparently including Trump) and Putin seeking to undermine the European Union, creating a reunified and neutral Ukraine could be one dimension of the Common Security diplomacy that we should be demanding.

Since Russia launched its proxy war in eastern Ukraine, competing NATO and Russian military exercises have ratcheted up military tensions to the point that Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier condemned last year’s NATO Anaconda-16 military exercises, the largest war game in Eastern Europe since the Cold War, as “warmongering.”

In Syria, meanwhile, Russia’s murderous intervention should be seen as a continuation of its Cold-War-era support for the Assad regime, as a means to reinforce its access to the Tartus naval base on the Mediterranean, and as a way to demonstrate its reemergence as a world power and to chip away at declining U.S. Middle East regional hegemony.

Both the Ukraine and Syrian Wars have brought us back to the nuclear brink. Again, we need to worry about what might happen if a U.S., Russian or Polish soldier, in anger or by accident, fires an anti-aircraft missile that brings down a U.S., NATO, or Russian warplane. As the trilateral European-Russian-U.S. Deep Cuts Commission concluded, “In the atmosphere of deep mutual mistrust, the increased intensity of potentially hostile military activities in close proximity – and particularly air force and naval activities in the Baltic and the Black Sea areas…. may lead to miscalculation and/or accidents and spin off in unintended ways.”

Putin said that he considered the possible use of nuclear weapons to reinforce Russian control of Crimea. And now General Breedlove, until recently NATO’s Supreme Commander, insists that the U.S. must enhance its nuclear exercises with its NATO allies to demonstrate their “resolve and capability.” Let’s not underestimate the dangers.

What to Do?

We can be hopeful and encourage some relaxation in U.S.-Russian tensions. But, we also need to be on guard against the possible creation of an authoritarian, racist, Christocentric U.S.-Russian axis, which seems to be where Senior Advisor Steve Bannon may want to take us. There is also the possibility that the pressures from the Deep State, congressional war hawks, and Trump’s egomania and need to dominate, could spark a major crisis if and when Putin takes provocative actions or makes unacceptable demands. Either way, we have to struggle for democracy and demilitarization and to prevent a crisis escalating to the unimaginable.

This is a time to take seriously the recommendations of the Back from the Brink report, which I am going to embellish slightly:

We need to build on the call for a new détente with Russia, even as we oppose Trump’s and Putin’s authoritarianism and domestic policies. Places to begin would be nuclear weapons reductions, withdrawal – not expansion – of “missile defenses,” and reversing the military buildup in the Baltic region.

We should educate ourselves and others about the role of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe,) “the single multilateral platform on which dialogue on relevant security concerns can and should be resumed.” Over the longer term, we can work to replace NATO with the OSCE.

Although the Back from the Brink Commission called for restraining nuclear weapons modernization, our goal must be ending the development and deployment of these omnicidal weapons. This also means opposing the $1 trillion nuclear weapons upgrade and pressing for the withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe.    Negotiating treaties to outlaw cyber and space warfare wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

Finally, while it is not all that we want, we need to educate about and promote a “common security” foreign policy. Common security reflects the truth that neither a person nor a nation can be secure if their actions lead their rivals to be more fearful. At the height of the Cold War, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme brought together leading U.S., European and Soviet figures to explore ways to step back from the brink. Common security was their answer. As European friends tell us, it requires that “the interests of others are seen as legitimate and have to be taken into account in decision making processes…[it] means negotiation, dialog and cooperation; it implies peaceful resolution of conflicts. [And that] Security can be achieved only by a joint effort or not at all.” This is how we won the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, which functionally ended the Cold War in 1987, and it may provide our way forward.

Much more will be required of us. In addition to the uncertainties and tensions in U.S.-Russian relations, Trump has gone out of his way to increase military and economic tensions with China. Millions of immigrants and Muslims among us are under threat, as is the climate and what remains of our democracy itself. The dangers are as great as we know they are, but we also know that it is darkest before the dawn, and that is we who bend the arc of history toward justice, peace, and environmental sustainability.

Joseph Gerson is director of the American Friends Service Committee’s Peace & Economic Security Program and vice president of the International Peace Bureau. His most recent book is Empire and the Bomb: How the US Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World. This essay is adapted from a presentation at the conference “Challenging Trumpism, Militarism and War” at American University, January 22, 2017.