Marching into oblivion

I’m not one of those people who look back on the Cold War with nostalgia. Whatever our current problems, they’re relatively mild to the threat of global nuclear war which used to seriously worry people back in the day. ‘When I were young’, as the saying goes, two massive armed blocs – NATO and the Warsaw Pact – stood face to face, ready to roll at a moment’s notice, while much of the developing world was wracked with proxy wars. It wasn’t a good time. But the very danger of it did have one positive effect – it concentrated minds and made the more sensible of them realize that ‘jaw, jaw is better than war, war’ and that it would really be to everybody’s benefit if agreement was reached to limit the upwards spiral of the arms race.

The result, beginning in the era of détente and continuing up to collapse of the Soviet Union, and even a little bit beyond, was the creation of a system of arms control, the purpose of which was to make Armageddon just a little less likely. Some of this arms control system was multilateral – the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty being examples – but much was bilateral between the Soviet Union and the United States. This included a veritable acronym soup of treaties – ABM, SALT, START, SORT, and so on – which dealt with nuclear and conventional weapons, and also in some cases introduced so-called ‘confidence building measures’, designed not just to limit weapons but to increase trust on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

In the past 20 years, this system has disintegrated. In the case of the CFE and START II treaties, it was the Russians who walked away. More often, however, it has been the Americans. Indeed, it was the USA which kickstarted the process by withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, prompting Russia to withdraw from START II in retaliation. Efforts have been made to revitalize arms control, as with the 2002 SORT and the 2011 New START (I won’t bother you with what all these acronyms mean), but under the Trump administration it’s become clear that United States is no longer interested. Last year, the USA renounced the INF Treaty, and yesterday it declared its intention to withdraw also from the Open Skies Treaty. All that now remains of the Cold War edifice is New START which is due to expire in 2021. While Russia wants to renew New START, it seems that the USA doesn’t. There’s a good chance that by the end of next year there’ll be nothing left at all.

The American renunciation of the Open Skies Treaty, which allows signatories to fly over each others’ territory taking photographs, is a little odd. After all, the United States benefits from being able to fly spy planes over Russia. The official explanation is that the Russians are breaking the treaty, by limiting American flights over Kaliningrad district and Georgia (the latter complaint being related to Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which affects what are considered Georgia’s borders). But these are relatively minor technical issues and if the Americans really valued the treaty, they’d be willing to find a way around the problem. The same applies to American complaints about alleged Russian violations of the INF Treaty, which could have been discussed and mediated rather than treated as an opportunity to walk away. One gains a strong impression that the Americans want to get to rid of arms control, and these are just excuses to let it do so.

To be fair, arms control always promised rather more than it delivered. The SALT 1 and SALT II treaties, for instance, sought to limit the number of nuclear missiles the USA and USSR could have, but each side got around it by just putting more warheads on each missile (the famous MIRVs – Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles). A deeper problem, though, was that there was always a strong constituency in the United States which objected to arms control on principle. The core of the issue is that arms control allegedly favours the weaker party, as it prevents the stronger side from acquiring the dominant position it would obtain if it left unrestrained. For all the talk of the gravity of the Soviet threat, Cold War Americans at heart kind of knew that they were the stronger party economically speaking. If there was to be arms race, they were always going to be able to out-produce the Soviets. Arms control, therefore, was seen as favouring the Soviets.

Arms control limits one’s freedom of action. In the context of the Cold War, there was perhaps some logic in self-limiting, but once the USA became the global hegemon, this logic disappeared. The USA thus refused to come on board such post-Cold War arms control projects such as the Ottawa Land Mines Treaty. At the same time, post-9/11 the USA adopted a national security strategy which dictated that it would deter any would be ‘peer competitors’ by so far outstripping them in military capabilities that they would give up before even starting. This would allow it to preserve its hegemony ad infinitum. And in this context, anything which restrains the USA in any way serves no purpose.

Adding to the suspicion of arms control was a myth of how the Cold War came to an end. According to this myth, what finished the Soviet Union off was the rearmament of the United States undertaken by President Ronald Reagan, and in particular his advocacy of the Strategic Defence Initiative (the infamous ‘Star War’s program). Soviet efforts to keep up with the Americans supposedly bankrupted the USSR, and thereby brought the Cold War to a victorious conclusion.

Despite the fact that this is a rather simplistic version of Cold War history, it apparently exerts a strong hold on parts of the American security establishment, whose mode of thinking is roughly as follows:  Arms control is bad, as it restrains the United States, while an arms race is nothing to be worried about, because if anybody is foolish enough to challenge the USA to such a race, they’ll be crushed by America’s overwhelming economic superiority.

Which brings us to Marshall Billingslea, recently appointed as US Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control, i.e. Donald Trump’s point man on arms control issues. As CNN reports, ‘Billingslea had previously been nominated to be under secretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights at the State Department but his confirmation process stalled after Democrats and advocacy groups raised concerns about his views on torture while working for President George W. Bush’. These concerns included allegations that Billingslea, ‘encouraged the use of methods that amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.’ Anyway, on Thursday, in his new arms control role, Billingslea announced that the USA was prepared to spend Russia and China into ‘oblivion’ in order to win a new nuclear arms race. As he said:

The president has made clear that we have a tried and true practice here. We know how to win these races and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion. If we have to, we will but we sure would like to avoid it.

This is one of those moments when you wonder if the world has gone absolutely stark raving bonkers. A new nuclear arms race, ‘oblivion’ – just what we need. You might imagine that post-COVID crisis, ramping up spending on nuclear weapons wouldn’t exactly be priority number one. You might imagine instead that this would be a good time to reconsider just how useful all that military spending is, and whether there aren’t perhaps better things to be using our resources on. But no! Nuclear arms race it is.

Not only is this an absurd priority, but it is also completely misreads the current state of play in the world and draws on a historical parallel (Billingslea’s ‘tried and true practice’, by which he no doubt means the Cold War) which is completely unlike today. Back in the 1980s, the Soviet Union was already far poorer than the United States, and it was getting poorer by the day as its economic model came under increasing stress. The same is true today of neither Russia (which has hundreds of billions of dollars in the bank) nor China, whose GDP is the largest in the world and growing (pre-COVID) at a rate far faster than that of the United States. America, meanwhile, is wading in a massive swamp of debt, and sinking further and further into it by the day. The idea that the USA can outspend China ‘into oblivion’ is laughable.

To date, China has avoided seeking nuclear parity with the USA, and has kept its nuclear forces at a much lower level than its main geopolitical rival. Keen to prevent China from changing its mind, the USA has proposed a new system of tri-lateral American-Russian-Chinese arms control. This is a welcome step, but the Chinese response is that since its nuclear forces are so much smaller than those of America and Russia, any such system would have to involve massive cuts by the Russians and Americans. Billingslea’s statement would suggest that this isn’t what the Americans have in mind. A news arms race may still be avoided. Let us hope so. But if it does come, I’m not as confident as Billingslea that this time the Americans will win.

12 thoughts on “Marching into oblivion”

  1. I would like to add some context concerning Russian restriction r.e. Kaliningrad and how they came about.

    It is kind of Polands fault actually.
    So, Open sky treaty has a thing with “maximum flight lengths”, which are kind of based on the size of the country, or the countries subdivision (Russia is divided into zones etc.). For small countries like Czechia, it is at 600km, for western Russia, of which Kaliningrad is a part of, it is 5000km.

    So, Poland decided to go maximum Trollface, and made a 5000km observation flight exclusively in/over the Kaliningrad oblast (according to a local Urban Kaliningrader myth, the flight path was a “FUCK YOU” written in cursive), Russia was obliged to close the air space for civilian traffic during this quite prolonged time (courtesy based on the Open sky treaty).
    Understandably Russia has since stated that observation flights in Kaliningrad have a maximum length of 500 km, roughly on par with obersvation flights in Czechia.
    Espeically if you consider that, in theory, Poland, The Baltics and the rest of the Butthurt belt could pool their flight rights, and by clevery making repeats of such flights inflict considerably degrees of economic hardship on Kaliningrad. If the entire butthurt belt goes all in on trolling Kaliningrad, they could should down air traffic there for about 4 weeks per year.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. What about all those Russian ‘miracle weapons’, how do they play into this? The Poseidon thing, for example.

    Is there a chance that something like that, in combination with the “dead hand” switch, could negate the whole game, make it meaningless?

    I mean, geopolitically. It’ll still likely to continue, because money needs to be spent, research needs to continue, and military keynesianism is, I believe, an essential component of the US economy.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “I mean, geopolitically. It’ll still likely to continue, because money needs to be spent, research needs to continue, and military keynesianism is, I believe, an essential component of the US economy.”

      Will a real breadwinner in da house of the US of A please stand up?

      US Defense Firms Hiring Thousands Amid Record Unemployment. Quotes:

      “Lockheed, the world’s largest defense company, already has hired more than 2,365 new employees since March when many U.S. companies began furloughing or layoff workers amid coronavirus stay-at-home orders. In addition, Lockheed is “actively recruiting for over 4,600 roles,” in 39 states and Washington, D.C., the company said in a statement Friday.

      “Northrop Grumman says it could hire as many 10,000 this year. Raytheon Technologies another 2,000. Boeing, which is preparing to cut 10 percent of its 160,000-employee workforce as the airlines predict at least a three-year drop in sales, is advertising more than 600 open positions in the United States, largely in its defense, space, cybersecurity and intelligence units.”

      […]

      “Pay cuts, furloughs and a hiring freeze has hit Raytheon Technologies’ commercial business, a major supplier to planemakers. But it’s a different story on the defense side of the house where there are 2,000 job openings. Last month, the Air Force chose Raytheon to build a new nuclear cruise missile, a project Hayes said could be worth $10 billion over its lifetime.

      “In recent years, Lockheed has been expanding its missiles and space businesses as the Pentagon has increased focus and spending in these sectors.

      […]

      “Northrop Grumman, the fourth-largest U.S. defense company, expects “significant headcount growth this year because of the program volume increases… sales growth, as well as the anticipated awards in the latter half of this year,” CEO Kathy Warden said on the company’s quarterly earnings call last week.

      “The company also has been increasingly winning classified contracts as the U.S. military has shifted spending to develop new weapons to counter China. Northrop is building a new stealth bomber and a new intercontinental ballistic missile for the Air Force.

      ““We are actively recruiting for 10,000 open positions and we hired more than 3,500 people in the first quarter, which included more than 1,300 new hires in March,” Warden said.”

      Companies Trump said would create thousands of jobs have failed to deliver. Quote:

      “Since [Trump] took office, only Fiat Chrysler and defense contractor Lockheed Martin have added a meaningful number of net new workers.

      Lockheed’s U.S. headcount is up about 15%. Fiat’s employment is up about 11%, with some gains coming from broader North American operations. The net gain of jobs at the two companies is about 22,800 since the end of 2016, according to company disclosures.”

      See? Seeeee? How can you argue against the power of the Money, Professor? Cuz war-machine choo-choo has no brakes.

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  3. The point of the open skies treaty is not so much the actual surveilliance, which the great powers can also do with satellite, but that it prefers a not so conflict laden interface for military personell with each other. It also gives fairly cheap option to verify stuff, and to show that you are verifying stuff etc, without revealing any capabilities.

    Essentially, it adds mutually agreed rules (imho Russia is on pretty solid ground concerning its Kaliningrad amendment, the de jure law for its Abkhazia/South Ossetia ammendment is less shaky because it fully relies on Russian unilateral recognition of South Ossetia/Abkhazian independence) to a fraught situation, and the more such rules the better.

    My own impression is that sub general people of nearly all armies tend to get along quite fine, heck, I would pay my own taxpayer money to fund trustbuilding joint Speznaz/KSK pub crawls.

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  4. This is Pompeo, Trump and much of the Republican thinking on this matter in effect. After all ABM withdrawal happened under Bush. Still this is also what happens with Tillerson and Mattis gone. Whatever else they may have thought they knew Arms Control treaties may favour in certain respects the weaker parties but overall it does not matter as the outcome of a ‘successful’ nuclear war would still be so costly and monstrous that efforts that reduce the likelihood of one occurring is overall a net gain for everyone involved. Furthermore it was the conventional forces that really drove up the Soviet defense budget, not their nuclear forces. Russia, if it needs to can and will spend more needed to ensure that even if the US ‘wins’ a nuclear war it would be a very hollow victory. China, now in the USA’s crosshairs because the Republicans are looking to shift blame for the COVID 19 catastrophe in the US from their delay, boasting, incompetence and sheer indifference to China – knows it cannot sit on the sidelines and hope not to be noticed. China spends 1.2-2.0% of GDP (depending on various estimates) on defence. If it feels threatened, it is highly capable of ramping up spending to whatever is required (and as a percentage of GDP that is not very much) to make sure it too has an arsenal that guarantees it can destroy the USA or make any ‘victory’ so empty as to not matter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Whatever else they may have thought they knew Arms Control treaties may favour in certain respects the weaker parties”

      I suppose in Trump’s case, this could also be interpreted as his preference to always keeping the situation fluid, open to endless negotiations and re-negotiations. Using every conceivable leverage, squeezing every last drop, that sort of thing.

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      1. Well Trump thinks Russia and China are marks. He’s never really been a legitimate businessman, he’s been a guy looking for a revenue stream that goes purely one way – to him. That’s how he views things and it is why he’s bankrupted all his businesses.

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  5. <babble alert:
    ‘When I were young’, as the saying goes, two massive armed blocs

    curious:. “When i were young”, but why not ?

    … when I was young, I for a while lived right at the center of the storm in Berlin, at one point meeting a chain of tanks rattling down the road, approching, then passing me sound-wise. Had I been a musician then, I might be able to describe the very specific ‘noise’, now. Maybe even harmonize it … Much later I learned about the Fulda Gap … and more recently I learned protection may come with bill. Which, strictly, would have turned the soldiers I met at that point in time into mercenaries already then. But I guess that is a different issue:

    When I was young, Eric Burdon

    But yes, before the wall came down there was the NATO Double track decision and … and protests over here. Against nuclear arms on our occupied strategic deployment ground between East and West.

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  6. The kind of view of the end of the Cold War which underpins Billingslea’s notion that the United States can spend Russia and China into ‘oblivion’ is that championed by people who totally failed to anticipate what happened in the Soviet Union in the ‘Eighties, and have not seen this fact as reason for rethinking the assumptions that caused them to get things so radically wrong.

    The extent of the incompetence involved is vividly apparent in the collection of documents from the American and Soviet sides published by the ‘National Security Archive’ in January 2017, under the title ‘The Last Superpower Summits.’

    (See https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/briefing-book/russia-programs/2017-01-23/last-superpower-summits

    Particularly revealing, to my mind, is Document 12, the transcript of the closed-door testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee by the top three CIA analysts of the Soviet Union, Doug MacEachin, Robert Blackwell, and Paul Ericson, at the precise moment, in December 1988, when Gorbachev announced his 500,000 troop cut at the U.N.

    The editors comment:

    ‘And MacEachin offers a true confession in an extraordinary passage that demonstrates how prior assumptions about Soviet behavior, rather than actual intelligence data points, actually drove intelligence findings: “Now, we spend megadollars studying political instability in various places around the world, but we never really looked at the Soviet Union as a political entity in which there were factors building which could lead to the kind of – at least the initiation of political transformation that we seem to see. It does not exist to my knowledge. Moreover, had it existed inside the government, we never would have been able to publish it anyway, quite frankly. And had we done so, people would have been calling for my head. And I wouldn’t have published it. In all honesty, had we said a week ago that Gorbachev might come to the UN and offer a unilateral cut of 500,000 in the military, we would have been told we were crazy. We had a difficult enough time getting air space for the prospect of some unilateral cuts of 50 to 60,000.”

    Actually, it was quite possible to do much better, without spending ‘megadollars’, if one simply went to the Chatham House Library and/or the London Library and looked at what competent analysts, like those working for the Foreign Policy Studies Program then run by the late, great John Steinbruner at Brookings – a very different place then from now.

    Among those he employed were two of the best former intelligence analysts of Soviet military strategy: Ambassador Raymond Garthoff and Commander Michael MccGwire, R.N., to give them their titles when in government service.

    These has devoted a great deal of effort to explaining that Professor Richard Pipes of Harvard, a key influence in creating the ‘groupthink’ MacEachin described, had missed a crucial transition away from nuclear war planning to conventional ‘deep operations’ in the late ‘Sixties and ‘Seventies.

    Inturn, this led Garthoff and MccGwire to grasp that the Gorbachev-era ‘new thinkers’ had decided that the conventional ‘deep operations’ posture in turn needed to be abandoned. For a summary of the latter’s arguments, see article entitled ‘Rethinking War: The Soviets and European Security’, published in the Spring 1988 edition of the ‘Brookings Review’, available on the ‘Unz Review’ site.

    (See https://www.unz.com/print/BrookingsRev-1988q2-00003/.)

    Also associated with Brookings at the time was the Duke University Sovietologist Jerry Hough, who had read his way through the writings of academics in the institutes associated with the Academy of Sciences on development economics, and talked extensively to many of their authors.

    In the ‘Conclusion’ to his 1986 study, ‘The Struggle for the Third World: Soviet Debates and American Options’, Hough wrote:

    ‘Or what is one to say about the argument – now very widely accepted – among Soviet economists – that countries with “capitalist-oriented” economies in the third world have a natural tendency to grow more rapidly than countries with a “socialist orientation” because well-rounded development seems to be dependent on foreign investment and integration into the world market? A quarter of a century ago, let alone in the Stalin period, it was just as widely accepted that integration into the capitalist world economy doomed a third world country to slow, deformed growth and that foreign investment exploited a local economy.’

    One thing one could say is that this recognition that fundamental premises of the Marxist-Leninist view of the world had turned out wrong was simple an acknowledgement of the ways that the world had changed. And that view of the world had defined the political framework in which Soviet contingency planning for war had developed.

    Central to this had been the premise of a ‘natural’ teleology of history towards socialism, with the risk of war in the international system arising from the attempts of the ‘imperialist’ powers to resist this.

    So there were profound pressures, which really were not simply created by the Reagan military build-up and SDI, for radical changes in the Soviet security posture. Questions were obviously raised, however, as to whether these – together with radical domestic reform – would defuse Western hostility.

    Fascinating here is Document 11, a memo to Gorbachev from a key advisor, Georgy Arbatov, the director of the ‘Institute for U.S.A. and Canada’ from the previous June. This sets the plan for the 500,000 troop reduction in the context both of the wider conception of liquidating the capability for large-scale offensive operations described MccGwire, and also of the perceived importance of breaking the ‘image of the enemy’ in the West.

    While both Gorbachev, and Arbatov, were widely perceived in the West as engaged in a particularly dangerous ‘active measures’ campaign, it is striking how closely the thinking set out in the memo echoes that the latter had articulated the previous December in a letter to the ‘New York Times’, in response to a column by William Safire.

    (See https://www.nytimes.com/1987/12/08/opinion/l-it-takes-two-to-make-a-cold-war-963287.html.)

    Headlined ‘It Takes Two to Make a Cold War’, it expresses key assumptions underlying the ‘new thinking.’ Two crucial paragraphs:

    ‘If the Soviet Union should accept the proposed rules of the game and devotedly continue the cold war, then, of course, sooner or later, the whole thing would end in a calamity. But at least Mr. Safire’s plan would work. The only problem I see here is that the Soviet Union will not pick up the challenge and accept the proposed rules of the game. And then Americans would find themselves in exactly the same position Mr. Safire and his ilk, as he himself writes, are finding themselves in now: history would pass them by, and years from now they would be “regarded as foot-draggers and sourpusses,” because almost no one in the world is willing to play the games of the American right. Least of all, the Soviet Union.

    ‘And here we have a “secret weapon” that will work almost regardless of the American response e would deprive America of The Enemy. And how would you justify without it the military expenditures that bleed the American economy white, a policy that draws America into dangerous adventures overseas and drives wedges between the United States and its allies, not to mention the loss of American influence on neutral countries? Wouldn’t such a policy in the absence of The Enemy put America in the position of an outcast in the international community?’

    There was however another question which was raised by the patent bankrupcy of Marxism-Leninism, which bore very directly upon what Arbatov, in his memorandum to Gorbachev.

    If one accepted that Soviet-style economics had led to a dead end, and that integration into the U.S. dominated global economic order was the road to successful development, questions obviously arose about not simply about how far, and how rapidly, one should attempt to dismantle not simply the command economy.

    But they also arose about whether it was prudent to dismantle the authoritarian political system with which it was associated, at the same time.

    In a lecture given in 2010, entitled ‘The Cold War: A View from Russia’, the historian Vladimir O. Pechatnov, himself a product of Arbatov’s institute, would provide a vivid picture of the disillusion felt by ‘liberalising’ intellectuals within the Soviet apparatus, like himself.

    (See http://jhss-khazar.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/01.pdf.)

    However, he also made the – rather interesting – suggestion that, had logic of central arguments by George F. Kennan, the figure generally, if in my own view somewhat misleadingly, regarded as the principal architect of post-war American strategy, actually pointed rather decisively away from the assumption that a rapid dismantling of the authoritarian system was wise.

    And Pechatnov pointed to the very ambivalent implications of the view of the latent instability of Soviet society expressed in Kennan’s famous July 1947 ‘X-article’:

    ‘So, if Communist Party is incapacitated, the Soviet Russia, I quote, “would almost overnight turn from one of the mightiest into one of the weakest and miserable nations of the world…”). Had Gorbachev read Kennan and realized this causal connection (as Deng and his colleagues most definitely had), he might have thought twice before abruptly terminating the Communist monopoly on power.’

    What is involved here is a rather fundamental fact – that in their more optimistic assumptions, people like Arbatov and Gorbachev turned out to be simply wrong.

    Crucially, rather than marginalising people like Pipes, and Safire, and Billingslea, an effect of the retreat and collapse of Soviet power was to convince a very substantial part of what had been the ‘Peace Movement’ coalition that their erstwhile opponents had been vindicated.

    However, the enthusiasm of people like Billingslea for a retry of the supposed successful ‘Reagan recipe’ brings another irony.

    As to SDI, it was well-known at the time that it could easily be countered, at relatively low cost, with ‘asymetric’ measures.

    This is well brought out in Garthoff’s discussion in his 2001 Memoir ‘A Journey through the Cold War: A Memoir of Containment and Coexistence’ (see p. 356.) For a more recent discussion, in the light of declassified materials, which reaches the same conclusion, see a piece in the ‘Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ by Pavel Podvig from April 2013, entitled ‘Shooting down the Star Wars myth’ at

    https://thebulletin.org/2013/04/shooting-down-the-star-wars-myth-2/

    And if one bothers to follow the way that arguments have been developing outside the ‘bubble’ in which most inhabitants of Washington D.C., and London exist, it is evident that people in Moscow, and Beijing, have thought about the lessons of this history. Those who think that they are going to be suckered into an arms race that the United States can win are quite patently delusional.

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