Artificial conflict

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.  (Dwight D. Eisenhower)

Having been an officer in the armies of two countries, I am perhaps not a natural peacenik. But as I get older, I find myself agreeing more and more with General Smedley Butler, who capped an illustrious military career (twice winning the Medal of Honor) by exclaiming ‘War is a racket.’

I am not a fan of defence spending, military posturing, and military interventions. Most of it is completely unnecessary. In my mind, the most important work on international relations (IR) ever written is Robert Jervis’ article ‘Hypotheses on Misperception’, which was later expanded into a book. Jervis explains how international conflict is often not the result of aggression by one party or the other but of misperception. States see themselves as more benign than they are, and cannot see why other states might regard them as hostile. They therefore perceive those other states as more threatening than they are, and take measures in response, which in turn are seen as threatening by others, encouraging them to take further measures, and so on. IR scholars call this the ‘security dilemma’, and it’s very much IR 101 – something students learn right at the start of their studies. Yet somehow those responsible for security policy rarely seem to grasp it.

At the conference I attended in Copenhagen on Monday, Danish historian Bent Jensen gave an excellent speech in which he described current Russian-Western tensions as ‘artificial’. NATO isn’t going to attack Russia, and Russia isn’t going to attack NATO. In fact, Russia and NATO have common interests in a stable international order, combatting terrorism, and the like. The commonalities of our interests are much greater than the differences. There’s no need for either side to be building up its military forces. Yet the two sides have gotten themselves into a cycle of misperception of potential aggression, which is encouraging further misperception in an increasing spiral.

I agree entirely with Jensen, which is why I find Vladimir Putin’s glorification of Russia’s military prowess in his address to the Federal Assembly on Thursday so regrettable. As Jervis points out, one significant problem in international relations is that the messages that state leaders think they are sending are often misperceived. The sender thinks he’s saying one thing, but the receiver hears something completely different. In his speech, Putin described a series of weapons Russia has developed in response to America’s deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems. A significant percentage of his speech (nearly 50%) was devoted to this matter. Outlining Russia’s advanced strategic weapons capabilities, Putin said:

We are not threatening anyone, not going to attack anyone or take away anything from anyone with the threat of weapons. We do not need anything. Just the opposite. … to those who in the past 15 years have tried to accelerate an arms race and seek unilateral advantage against Russia … I will say this: everything you have tried to prevent through such a policy has already happened. No one has managed to restrain Russia.

From this, it’s clear to me what message Putin thinks he’s sending: Russia’s actions are defensive, prompted by previous actions of the United States; the purpose is to deter attack, not to attack anybody; and the USA should stop trying to push Russia around.

Unfortunately, I very much doubt that that is the message that will be received. However much Putin says that Russia is not threatening anybody, his statements will be interpreted as threatening. For instance, National Public Radio in the United States cites the RAND Corporation’s Edward Geist, and says, ‘Geist says he expects Russia’s provocations to continue. “They’re sending us a message that they are not OK with our U.S. missile defense posture,” he says. That message? “They’re willing to go full Strangelove on us,” Geist says.’

Putin himself has twice quoted Otto von Bismarck as saying that one should not pay any attention to intentions, only to capabilities. Military planners in the United States will no doubt take the same line, point to Russia’s new capabilities, and demand even more funds to develop even more advanced weapons themselves in response. Rather than persuading America to back off, Putin’s speech is likely to confirm American suspicions that Russia is a rising threat and so to only strengthen the hand of the hawks in Washington. Russia is unlikely to benefit.

Elsewhere in his speech, Putin remarked that, ‘The main threat and our main enemy is the fact that we are falling behind.’ For the past 10 years, the Russian economy has stagnated, enduring two recessions. As Putin said, ‘Today, 20 million Russian nationals live in poverty.’ He also noted that Russian life expectancy, while improving, ‘is not just low, it is a tragedy.’ It’s hard to see how grandiose defence projects contribute to improving these problems. Putin remarked that health spending should increase from 4 to 5% of GDP. The global average is about 10%. Boasting of nuclear-powered cruise missiles while neglecting basic services in such a manner strikes me as indicative of a distorted set of priorities.

A couple of weeks ago, a student asked me what I thought of the Trump administration’s decision to massively increase defence spending. I replied that I didn’t normally consider it my job to foist my opinions on my students but, as I’d been asked, I thought it was ‘insane’. A few years ago, I wrote a book chapter calling for cuts of around 40% in British defence spending, and to be honest I was being deliberately restrained so as not to seem too extreme. I say all this just to make it clear that I’m not picking on Russia in this regard. Putin’s speech is part of a larger problem. But that doesn’t make it any better. Back in the 1990s, we looked forward to enjoying a ‘peace dividend’. Now, the world seems to be going in the opposite direction. It is deeply saddening. It is also entirely unnecessary.


12 thoughts on “Artificial conflict”

  1. “They’re willing to go full Strangelove on us,” Geist says.

    I’m not sure what he meant by that, but it does sound like they are indeed building (or threatening to build) a Doomsday Machine, to deter the “full Strangelove” possibility. Think of the status-6 thing.

    And considering the western rhetoric and actions (ABM/cruise missile installations in Romania and Poland, abrogating treaties, new troop deployments), this might be a reasonable reaction. It’s hard to tell, of course, not being an expert and all, but it’s not obviously wrong.

    I feel, however, that a speech like that, bragging about your great weapons, indicates a weakness. Or maybe it’s for internal consumption, with the election and all? Who the hell knows.


  2. “Rather than persuading America to back off, Putin’s speech is likely to confirm American suspicions that Russia is a rising threat and so to only strengthen the hand of the hawks in Washington. “

    Question – how can Putin persuade that Russia is not a rising threat? Just a few days ago STRATCOM’s head said: “Russia is the most significant threat just because they pose the only existential threat to the country right now. So we have to look at that from that perspective,”

    Are you suggesting that Russia must disarm and submit to the Western dictat?

    “Boasting of nuclear-powered cruise missiles while neglecting basic services in such a manner strikes me as indicative of a distorted set of priorities.”

    Yeah, riiiight… Muammar Quaddafi provided his people with world-class education, social services and medicine while neglecting the military spending. A lesson to everyone here.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. “Back in the 1990s, we looked forward to enjoying a ‘peace dividend’. Now, the world seems to be going in the opposite direction. It is deeply saddening. It is also entirely unnecessary.”

    Ahh.. Peace through Hegemony. Not everyone remembers these years fondly, Professor. Frankly, probably the wast majority of the human beings on these plante either don’t want the repeat of them or don’t care about this “peace dividend”. Is that what you, a Westerner, want to bring back – and undisputed Western dominance? “Peace Through Power”?


    1. Perhaps it wasn’t exactly a “peace dividend”, but rather a dividend from swallowing huge new territories, markets, resources. Expanding. Now it’s been digested, and the beast is suffering again. Hungry. The internal contradictions of capital accumulation.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. To criticize Putin for reminding the west that Russia can destroy it if attacked with nuclear weapons is to ignore the western rebuffs of many, many peace overtures from Russia for years. They’ve all been ignored and in fact have resulted in Russia being surrounded by western forces. Talking nice has gotten Russia nowhere. One can only hope this gets the attention of the War Party sufficiently to lead to the return of arms control talks and the removal of missiles, ABM, and warships from the proximity of Russia’s borders in exchange for similar measures (constrained of course by that the fact the Russia isn’t encircling the US with similar forces) from Russia.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. The ABM treaties were the closest that policy-makers came to dealing with this. History now, unfortunately.

    The absurd end-state would be all public spending going to the military. We’re a ways from that. There is room for growth unfortunately.

    Some annual budget estimates*:

    US: $600B = 3.3% GDP = $1800 per capita
    Russia: $70B = 5.3% GDP = $500 per capita
    China** : $215B = 1.9% GDP = $160 per capita

    For comparison, some more developed countries less committed to “playing the game” to the full extent:

    France $56B = 2.3% GDP = $830 per capita
    Germany $41B = 1.2% GDP = $500 per capita
    Japan $46B = 1.0% GDP = $360 per capita

    * SIPRI estimates, Wikipedia. Probably under-reported all around.
    ** doubling every 5-6 years since mid 90’s. Has now reached global norms per GDP but not yet per capita.


  6. One can ask the following question: if I was the president of the Russian Federation, faced with the credible threat of a devastating first strike nuclear attack on Russia, what decision would I take? Ignore the threat? Or develop arms with which to countervail the threat?

    And once having become sure that the arms would become operational in a short time horizon, would I keep them secret or would I make them public?

    As much as I understand Russia history and Russian psyche, ignoring the threat would be irresponsible behaviour, bordering treason – failing to understand that appears to be a perfect example of “irrussianality”.

    Not making the arms public would negate the primary aim of developing them – deter the potential attacker – and would be stupid madness.

    To speak clearly. It is possible that decision-making groups in the country that menaces (menaced?) credibly, if only implicitly, Russia with a first strike nuclear attack, will manage to get said country into a nuclear war with Russia after all. It is believed, with near certainty, that such war would destroy civilisation all over the world as we know it, most probably the human species and probably life.

    That is true, but it simple makes no sense to ask Russians to subjugate to said groups in a dubious attempt to avoid said war. Or to argue that if subjugating, they could get more “butter” by making less “cannons”. If, again, one takes a Russian point of view, the first argument appears ethically flawed and strategically insecure. The second tries to present a somehow ridiculous persuasion for the first on the basis of a wrong idea: that the capability to make “cannons” can be converted to make “butter” irrespectively of the international situation a country finds itself in.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. 1.Paul wolfowitz was worried about Russia ‘s return to great power status in a period of 10 years in 1995 while hoping for good relations with Russia.2. USSR was also worried about Germany returning to great power status after WW-II with in a period of 20 years and tried to prevent it. 3.all these defense fellows know that Russia will be back.


  8. I can understand that you have conflicting emotions about this. My reaction is basically fatalistic. (There is an element of surprise too, for Russian military technology seems much more advanced than I would have imagined a few years ago.) I agree that it would probably be better if the Russian economy was ratcheted up and more money was diverted to social welfare and education. However, in the current global environment I find it difficult to blame Russia- one can hardly say that the US and NATO are benign players. They would most likely destroy Russia once and for all if the opportunity arose, though whether this was ever a possibility is, of course, a moot point. In the meantime, we are left with a global situation where we need international agreements about weapons of mass destruction as much as ever. Who knows- perhaps the Europeans might come out of their reverie at last.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Paul, Mr. Putin’s perception is that the West are determined to continue destroying countries that oppose the West’s will in any serious way, either by direct invasion or by Saudi proxy Wahabi headchoppers. We all the noise Western media made a few months back when the Saudi proxy Wahabi headchoppers were facing defeat in Aleppo, now at peace, with people returning to rebuild their lives. Now the Saudi proxy Wahabi headchoppers face being deprived of east Ghouta, from which they have been bombarding Damascus for years, and its ‘The Russians are destroying nothing but schools & hospitals ZOMG!!’ From Western media again.

    The point is, you are correct that Russia does not threaten the West. Your belief that the West doesn’t threaten Russia is incorrect.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Sorry Mr Robinson I don’t agree with you regarding President Putins speech.

    NATO expansion began under Clinton? Why- if Russia wasn’t a threat and they wanted good relations ?

    George Bush junior withdrew from the ABM treaty 2004 and began the process of missile defence to eradicate M.A.D . If they were not planning for a first strike on Russia they would have started in the treaty.

    Putin was right to plan the defence of Russia – if the West feel threatened good – they have been threatening Russia for decades.

    America’s actions and NATO actions are the reasons we are in this situation – Putin responded very well

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Oh, and one more thing. Considering this quote by good ol’ Ike:

    “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense…”

    …dozens upon dozens of jobs. All those factories, cycles of production, manufacture lines mean thousands of employed people. People, who earn money not just for themselves, but for their entire families, who fed them, who clothe them, who make sure their homes will never be cold. This also mean funds for the education (all of it!), because every gun, ship and rocket must be invented, designed and tested in the dedicated institutions of the higher education and construction bureaus.

    This sweat of YOUR country’s (no outsourcing here!) laborers, the genius of YOUR scientists, the hopes of the children who know that they will have a chance to grow up and find employment. And, tell you what – due to the slump in demographics you might one day need less schools, but, surely, the world will always need more… hardware 😉

    Build new schools? Yes, but what for? If you have no idea what your nation need education for, what’s the point? If, as in any capitalist society, the education is just a “service”, nothing more, why go over you head with it? Or there is something more, but then the schools must reflect the state’s view of this particular something and educate accordingly. Power plants, schools, hospitals, pavement are nice – but fragile. You think – “oh, no way it would happen to me!”. Betcha people of Lybia, Syria, Iraq, Serbia and (the former) Ukraine thought as much.

    Wheat gets eaten and shat afterwards. Homes get destroyed. “Sic transit” and all that jazz. The world won’t disarm itself. No, no way. The Europe (mostly) did in the Blessed 90s. What for? They basically gutted their national military industrial complexes, which affected the whole vertical of interconnected facilities, institutions and production line. They did the same to the “New Europe”. The end result… Professor, have you ever wondered about the amount of the tanks in the EU? Who, which countries, still have them and about even lesser number of them who can still produce them? Right now, blood y Romania (!) has more tanks then France, Germany, UK, Italy or Spain. Romania. Romania.


    Why this whole “kumbaya” session of the Blessed 90s looks to me like one giant con by the US, to kill the EU competition, and them shove down their throat red-blooded American military grade produce, because: a) They are URGENTLY required to get it cuz Evul Russia. b) They have no way to do that on their own.

    … American capitalists shat enough bricks during the Great Depression to wow to the Heaven one thing – “never again will we fear again”. MilIdn complex is this wish granted. There is no other way for the capitalism to survive.


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