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 October 7, 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 troops 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 40 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 1000.
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 16 cases of power transitions in the last 500 years, 12 resulted in warfare. This discussion has largely focused on China.
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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 co-operate 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.
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 the Chinese, who will respond accordingly.
(Tony Kevin assisted me in comments on this article.)
*Read the rest at John Menadue’s blog, Pearls and Irritations
*Ramesh Thakur, a former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General, is professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University