This century’s challenges

The primary challenge facing the people of the world is, literally, survival. The former head of the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), General Lee Butler, put the matter plainly more than a decade ago. He wrote that throughout his long professional military career he was “among the most avid of these keepers of the faith in nuclear weapons,” but it is now his “burden to declare with all of the conviction I can muster that in my judgment they served us extremely ill,” for reasons he outlines. He then raises a haunting question: “By what authority do succeeding generations of leaders in the nuclear-weapons states usurp the power to dictate the odds of continued life on our planet? Most urgently, why does such breathtaking audacity persist at a moment when we should stand trembling in the face of our folly and united in our commitment to abolish its most deadly manifestations?” To our shame, his question not only remains unanswered, but has taken on greater urgency.

General Butler may have been reacting to one of the most astonishing planning documents in the available record, the 1995 report of STRATCOM, entitled Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence. The report advised that the military resources directed against the former Soviet Union be maintained, but with an expanded mission. They must now be directed against “rogue states” of the Third World, in accord with the Pentagon view that “the international environment has now evolved from a ‘weapon rich environment’ [the USSR] to a ‘target rich environment’ [the Third World].” STRATCOM further advised that the United States should have available “the full range of responses,” though nuclear weapons are the most important of these, because “Unlike chemical or biological weapons, the extreme destruction from a nuclear explosion is immediate, with few if any palliatives to reduce its effect,” and even if not used, “nuclear weapons always cast a shadow over any crisis or conflict,” enabling us to gain our ends through intimidation.  Nuclear weapons “seem destined to be the centerpiece of U.S. strategic deterrence for the foreseeable future.” We must reject a “no first use policy,” and should make it clear to adversaries that our “reaction” may “either be response or preemptive.” Furthermore, “it hurts to portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed.” The “national persona we project” should make clear “that the U.S. may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked” and that “some elements may appear to be potentially ‘out of control.’”

Forty years earlier, Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein had warned that we face a choice that is “stark and dreadful and inescapable: Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?” They were not exaggerating.  An extraterrestrial observer attending to the events of the years since might marvel that the species has survived this long in an era of nuclear weapons. We should not take lightly the warning—in the words of Robert McNamara—joined by many other sober and respected analysts—“Apocalypse soon”—if we pursue our present course.

We now know that environmental catastrophe is no less a threat to survival, in a not too distant future. A serious approach will surely require significant socioeconomic changes and dedication of resources to technological innovations, particularly harnessing solar energy, many scientists contend.

A related threat is limited access to the basic means of life: water and sufficient food. There are short-term solutions: desalination, for example, in which Saudi Arabia is well in the lead in scale and Israel in technology—one of many bases for constructive cooperation, if the U.S. and Israel permit a resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict in terms of the international consensus on a viable two-state settlement that they have been barring for thirty years, with rare and brief departures, another critical challenge with broad repercussions. Currently, desalination relies on high energy inputs, and unless some renewable and nonpolluting source is developed, the approach is unfeasible. And there are other looming threats: one, perhaps not remote, is the possibility of an uncontrollable pandemic, which could be devastating unless serious planning is undertaken in advance and resources are devoted to deter the threat.

There are many uncertainties about how to address these issues. We can, however, be confident that the longer the delay in confronting them, the greater will be the cost to coming generations.

In contrast, it is clear how the threat of nuclear weapons can be ended: they can be eliminated, a legal obligation of the nuclear powers, as the World Court determined a decade ago. More broadly, there are sensible and feasible plans to restrict all production of weapons-usable fissile materials to an international agency, to which states can apply for nonmilitary uses. The United Nations Committee on Disarmament has already voted for a verifiable treaty with these provisions, in November 2004. The vote was 147 to 1 (the United States) with two abstentions (Israel and Britain). A negative vote by the reigning global superpower amounts to a veto, in fact a double veto, since the proposals cannot be implemented, and are also effectively banned from public awareness. But these outcomes are not graven in stone. There are concrete steps that can be taken to progress toward these critically important goals. And an informed and engaged public, worldwide, can act to ensure that the opportunity is not lost.

One important step would be the establishment of nuclear weapons–free zones (NWFZs). There are a number of cases, though, as always, their significance depends on the willingness of the great powers to observe the rules. Indian strategic analyst Brahma Chellaney observes that the 1985 South Pacific NWFZ treaty was only accepted more than twenty years later by Britain, France, and the United States (which, however, did not ratify it), “long after its original purpose had been lost.” It was delayed until “a final round of French nuclear tests in the region were carried out, with British and American logistical and other assistance, despite objections from many Asia-Pacific nations.” Furthermore, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau, effectively U.S. colonies, are excluded from the NWFZ, and serve as bases for U.S. nuclear submarines. Chellaney adds that “The objectives of the Southeast Asian [NWFZ] are being frustrated by opposition from all five nuclear powers.”

The most egregious violation of the intent of an NWFZ involves the island of Diego Garcia, used by the U.S. and UK as a base for their military operations in Western and Central Asia and as a storage site for nuclear weapons for future use. The island, from which the population was brutally and illegally expelled to build the huge base, is claimed by Mauritius, a signer of the African NWFZ.  In theory, much of the Southern Hemisphere is covered by such zones, but without great power compliance, they may “provide comfort from the harsh nuclear realities, but not from the perils of nuclear war,” Chellaney comments.

Nevertheless, establishment of NWFZs can be a valuable step, nowhere more than in the Middle East. In April 1991, the UN Security Council affirmed “the goal of establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction and all missiles for their delivery and the objective of a global ban on chemical weapons” (Resolution 687, Article 14). The commitment is of particular significance for the U.S. and UK, since it is that resolution on which they relied in seeking a thin legal justification for their invasion of Iraq. The goal of a Middle East NWFZ has been endorsed by Iran, and is supported by a large majority of Americans and Iranians. It is, however, dismissed by the U.S. government and both political parties, and is virtually unmentionable in mainstream discussion. It is also noteworthy that a large majority of Americans and Iranians, along with the developing countries (G-77, now more than 130), agree that Iran has the “inalienable rights” of all parties to the nonproliferation treaty (NPT) “to develop research, production, and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination,” rights that would also extend to Israel, Pakistan, and India were they to accept the NPT. When the press reports, as it commonly does, that Iran is defying “the world” by enriching uranium, it is adopting an interesting concept of “the world.”

The crucial step toward implementing Article 14 would be the willingness of Washington and elite sectors to attend to public opinion—what we might call “democracy promotion.” Agreement of the countries of the region is also necessary, as well as adequate inspection. These challenges for the future may not be insurmountable. While 80 percent of the population of the United States believe that the government is “run by a few big interests looking out for themselves,” not “for the benefit of all the people,” the public may not accept the conditions passively forever. They may choose to act, as in the past, to overcome this disenfranchisement—another critical challenge for the future, worldwide. As for inspection, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has proven to be highly competent, and with great power support, could become more so. One of Israel’s leading strategic analysts, Zeev Maoz, has presented solid arguments that Israel’s nuclear programs are harmful to its security, and has urged Israel to “seriously reconsider its nuclear policy and explore using its nuclear leverage to bring about a regional agreement for a weapons of mass destruction free zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East.” As noted, Iran has officially supported this outcome for some years. Iran scholar Ervand Abrahamian notes further that Iran seems to be the only case “in international politics where a country has actually discussed the pros and cons of building a bomb” in public. He cites “fairly conservative people from the military arguing against having the nuclear option,” including a minister of defense.

If these prove to be idle dreams, we will be marching resolutely toward the decision to “put an end to the human race.”

Current developments are not encouraging. With its overwhelming power, Washington’s stand is of course decisive. The Bush administration has been praised in the West for a perceived recent shift from aggressive militarism toward diplomacy, but the admiration is not universal. Commenting on President Bush’s January 2008 visit to the Gulf States, Middle East specialist and former ambassador Chas Freeman writes that “Arabs are notoriously courteous and welcoming to guests, even when they don’t like those guests…. Yet, when the American president visited and spoke on the subject of Iran, he drew an editorial in Saudi Arabia’s major English language newspaper deploring the fact that ‘American policy represents not diplomacy in search of peace, but madness in search of war.’”

Democrats do not offer much of an alternative. The stands of both political parties are far more confrontational than public opinion, not only with regard to the Middle East.

Developments in Europe are also fraught with danger. To the NATO leadership, it is the merest truism that they are a force for peace. Most of the world, which has rather different memories of Western benevolence, sees matters differently. So does Russia. There seemed to be hope for long-term peace in Europe when the Soviet Union collapsed. Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to allow a unified Germany to join NATO, an astonishing concession in the light of history; Germany alone had practically destroyed Russia twice in that century, and now would belong to a hostile military alliance led by the global superpower. There was a quid pro quo: President Bush I agreed that NATO would not expand to include former Warsaw Pact members, granting Russia some measure of security. Clinton reneged on the agreement. NATO expanded eastwards, and also rejected the proposal of Russia (with Ukraine and Belarus) to establish a formal NWFZ from the Arctic to the Black Sea, encompassing central Europe. In response, Russia withdrew the policy of no first use of nuclear weapons that it had adopted after the Bush-Gorbachev agreement, reverting to the first-use policy that NATO has never abandoned.

Tensions mounted rapidly when Bush II took office, with threatening rhetoric, sharp expansion of offensive military capacity, withdrawal from key security treaties, and direct aggression. As predicted, Russia responded by increasing its own military capacity, followed later by China.  Ballistic missile defense (BMD) programs are a particular threat. One reason is that they are understood to be a step toward militarization of space. Washington continues to press forward with these plans, against uniform international opposition. In February 2008, the Union of Concerned Scientists reported, “the Bush administration rejected a draft treaty presented at the U.N. Conference on Disarmament that would ban space weapons and prohibit attacking satellites from the ground or space.” Of course, potential targets will respond to militarization of space, not with an effort to match the colossal U.S. military system, but in ways appropriate to their capacities, raising the threat of destruction, if only by accident. For such reasons, the most respected and sober U.S. strategic analysts warned early on that Bush administration military programs and its aggressive stance carry “an appreciable risk of ultimate doom” (John Steinbrunner and Nancy Gallagher).

BMD is understood on all sides to be a first-strike weapon, perhaps capable of nullifying a retaliatory strike and thus undermining deterrent capacity. The quasi-governmental RAND corporation describes BMD as “not simply a shield but an enabler of U.S. action.” In journals across the political spectrum, military analysts write approvingly that “Missile defense isn’t really meant to protect America. It’s a tool for global dominance.” BMD is “about preserving America’s ability to wield power abroad. It’s not about defense. It’s about offense. And that’s exactly why we need it” (Andrew Bacevich, Lawrence Kaplan).

Russian and Chinese analysts draw the same conclusions. Russian strategists can hardly fail to regard U.S. BMD installations in northern Poland and the Czech Republic as serious potential threats to their security. They will “rightly conclude that the system might be designed to counter Russia’s deterrent in addition to a nuclear attack from Iran,” two prominent U.S. specialists conclude in a detailed analysis. The specialists also review the reasons why Russia regards the alleged Iranian threat as a mere pretext, particularly after Bush’s rejection of Putin’s proposal to place the installations in Georgia or Azerbaijan, or eastern Turkey, where they would face Iran instead of Russia (George Lewis and Theodore Postol, Arms Control Today). The alleged Iranian threat to Europe and the U.S. can hardly be taken seriously for other reasons. One is that any potential threat could be overcome by Western agreement to pursue efforts to establish a Middle East NWFZ. Beyond that, unless Iran is dedicated to instant self-immolation, the chances of it attacking Europe are minuscule. If the system is directed against Iran at all, as claimed, then it can only intend to neutralize a possible deterrent to a U.S. first strike, rather like the U.S.-backed Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006.

Russia reacted as expected, developing more destructive offensive weapons, including new submarine-based missile systems with nuclear warheads; withdrawing from the Conventional Forces NATO-Warsaw Pact treaty; and threatening to aim missiles at European participants in the U.S. BMD programs. “We will be obliged to redirect our missiles at installations which we firmly believe pose a threat to our national security.” Putin warned: “I am obliged to say this openly and honestly today.”

The U.S.’s determination to extend NATO to the East has other motives as well. From the 1820s, U.S. planners resolved to dominate the Western Hemisphere, and during the Second World War, extended those aspirations to global dominance, intending to exercise control over the former British Empire, the Far East, Western Asia’s energy resources, and as much of Eurasia as possible. In this “Grand Area,” as they called it, the U.S. would hold “unquestioned power” with “military and economic supremacy,” while ensuring the “limitation of any exercise of sovereignty” by states that might interfere with its global designs. It was always understood that Europe might follow an independent course, perhaps the Gaullist vision of a Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals. NATO was partially intended to counter this threat. For similar reasons, Washington strongly favors expansion of NATO to include small states more likely to heed Washington’s demands, thus diluting the influence of the “Old Europe” condemned by Donald Rumsfeld—that is Germany and France, the commercial and industrial heartland.

The Grand Area, however, is tottering, even at its core. If the U.S. cannot control Latin America, it cannot expect “to achieve a successful order elsewhere in the world,” Nixon’s National Security Council concluded in 1971. In very recent years, South America has been taking steps to escape U.S. control. The countries of the region are moving toward integration, a prerequisite for independence, while also addressing severe internal disorders, most importantly, the traditional rule of a rich and largely white minority over a sea of misery and suffering. The two traditional modes of U.S. control—violence and economic strangulation—are losing their efficacy. U.S.-backed military coups were a regular occurrence in the past. The last attempt was in 2002, in Venezuela, and it quickly collapsed. South Americans are also “ridding themselves of the IMF,” as Argentine president Kirchner put it, thus escaping the control of a virtual branch of the U.S. Treasury Department, “the credit-community’s enforcer,” as the IMF was described by its American executive director. South-South relations are also strengthening, linking Brazil, South Africa, and India, among other interactions. And as in Africa and the Middle East, the rising economic power of China is providing alternatives to Western dominance.

For some years, the international economy has been tripolar, with major centers in North America, Europe, and East/Northeast Asia, now increasingly South Asia and Southeast Asia as well. There is one dimension in which the U.S. reigns supreme: means of violence, in which it spends roughly as much as the rest of the world combined, and is technologically far more advanced. But in other respects the world is becoming more diverse and complex.

Traditional methods of control have by no means been abandoned. In Latin America, U.S. training of military officers has sharply increased, their mission now directed against “radical populism,” meaning independence and socioeconomic reform. Resort to economic strangulation continues worldwide: against Cuba (in opposition to U.S. public opinion), to punish Palestinians for voting “the wrong way” in a free election, and most notably against Iran. In March 2008, the U.S. Treasury Department warned the world’s financial institutions against dealings with Iran’s major state-owned banks. The warnings have teeth, thanks to a provision of the PATRIOT Act that enables Washington to bar any financial institution violating U.S. directives from access to the U.S. financial system. That is a threat that few will dare to face, possibly even China. Economic analyst John McGlynn hardly exaggerates when he describes the March Treasury warning as a declaration of war against Iran, which might substantially isolate Iran from the international economy.

McGlynn’s analysis receives support from an unexpected source: a proposal for a militant “new grand strategy” issued in January 2008 by five high-level former NATO commanders, advising that “nuclear weapons—and with them the option of first use—are indispensable, since there is simply no realistic prospect of a nuclear-free world.” They include among the potential “acts of war” that we must guard against “abusing the leverage” provided by “weapons of finance.” To be sure, they adopt the conventional doctrine that brandishing such weapons becomes an “act of war” only when they are in the hands of others. When we use them—actually, not potentially—they are righteous means of self-defense, as are any aggressive actions by favored states, throughout history.

Europe so far has chosen to remain largely subordinate to the United States—Japan as well. China has followed an independent path, much to the discomfiture of Washington hawks, who are restrained because of the reliance of the U.S. economy on China. India has strengthened its alliance with the United States, while also maintaining a somewhat independent stance. China and India have been growing rapidly, but they face very severe internal problems; whether they can be overcome is far from clear. The Middle East oil producers face even more dire problems despite the great wealth that they are now accumulating. Thirty years ago, French economist Maurice Guernier, one of the founders of the OECD [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development], warned in a Beirut interview that the region is “heading for tragedy” unless it undertakes a rational investment policy to overcome its reliance on a wasting resource, a brief opportunity that will not return, and that has yet to be properly exploited.

These are only a few of the serious challenges that lie ahead. Failure to confront them seriously may well confirm the speculation of one of the great figures in modern biology, Ernst Mayr, that higher intelligence is an evolutionary error, incapable of survival for more than a passing moment of evolutionary time.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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