Michael T Klare
Michael T Klare is a professor of world security studies at Hampshire College in Amherst (Mass) and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left:the Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources (Picador, 2012).
Soldiers rehearsing for this year’s 9 May Victory Day parade in Moscow
Sefa Karacan / Anadolu Agency / Getty
The major powers are planning for war and claim that’s the best way to defend against war. Will this mutual hawkishness lead to armed conflict?
As the US presidential race approaches its climax and European officials ponder the implications of the UK’s Brexit vote, public discussion of security affairs is largely confined to strategies for combating international terrorism. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are trying to persuade voters of their superior qualifications to lead this battle, while European leaders scramble to bolster their countries’ defences against homegrown extremists. But though talk of terrorism fills the news media and the political space, it is secondary in the conversations of generals, admirals and defence ministers: it’s not low-level conflict that commands their attention but rather what they call ‘big wars’ — large-scale, high-level conflict with great-power adversaries like Russia and China. Such major conflicts, long considered most unlikely, are now deemed ‘plausible’ by western military strategists, who claim that urgent steps are needed to deter and, if necessary, prevail in such engagements.
This development, overlooked by the media, has serious consequences, starting with heightened tension between Russia and the West, each eyeing the other in the expectation of a confrontation. More worrying is the fact that many politicians believe that war is not only possible, but may break out at any moment — a view that historically has tended to precipitate military responses where diplomatic solutions might have been possible.
The origins of this thinking can be found in the reports and comments of senior military officials (typically at professional meetings and conferences). ‘In both Brussels and Washington, it has been many years since Russia was a focus of defence planning’ but that ‘has now changed for the foreseeable future,’ states one such report, summarising the views at a workshop organised in 2015 by the Institute of National Strategic Studies (INSS), a branch of the US National Defence University. The report says that as a result of Russian aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, many defence experts ‘can now envision a plausible pathway to war’ and this, in turn, ‘has led defence planners to recognise the need for renewed focus of the possibility of confrontation and conflict with Moscow’ (1).
‘A return to great power competition’
Such a conflict would be most likely to occur on NATO’s eastern front, encompassing Poland and the Baltic states, and would be fought with high-tech conventional weapons. But these planners also postulate that it could encompass Scandinavia and the Black Sea region, and might escalate into the nuclear realm. So US and European strategists are calling for a build-up of western military capabilities in all of these regions and for moves to enhance the credibility of NATO’s tactical nuclear options (2). A recent article in the NATO Review calls for the increased inclusion of nuclear-capable aircraft in future NATO military exercises, to create uncertainty in Russian minds about the point at which NATO commanders might order nuclear strikes to counter any Russian breakthrough on the eastern front (and presumably deter such an assault) (3).
This way of thinking, though confined until recently to military academies and thinktanks, has begun to shape government policy in significant and alarming ways. We see this in the new US defence budget, in decisions adopted at the NATO summit in July, and in the UK’s July decision to renew the Trident nuclear missile programme.
US defence secretary Ash Carter said the new budget ‘marks a major inflection point for the Department of Defence.’ Whereas the department had been focused in recent years ‘on large-scale counter-insurgency operations,’ it must now prepare for ‘a return to great power competition,’ possibly involving all-out conflict with a ‘high-end enemy’ such as Russia or China. These countries, Carter declared, ‘are our most stressing competitors,’ possessing advanced weapons that could neutralise some US advantages. To overcome this challenge, ‘we must have — and be seen to have — the ability to impose unacceptable costs on an advanced aggressor that will either dissuade them from taking provocative action or make them deeply regret it if they do’ (4).
In the short term, this will require urgent action to bolster US capacity to counter a potential Russian assault on NATO positions in eastern Europe. Under its European Reassurance Initiative, the Pentagon will spend $3.4bn in fiscal 2017 to deploy an extra armoured combat brigade in Europe and to pre-position the arms and equipment for yet another brigade. To bolster US strength over the long term, there would be greater US spending on high-tech conventional weapons needed to defeat a high-end enemy, such as advanced combat aircraft, surface ships and submarines. Carter noted that, on top of this, ‘the budget also invests in modernising our nuclear deterrent’ (5). It’s hard not to be struck by echoes of the cold war.
The final communiqué adopted by the NATO heads of state and government in Warsaw on 9 July is also reminiscent of this era (6). Coming just a few days after the Brexit vote, the NATO summit drowned out any concerns over disarray in Europe with a stentorian anti-Russian attitude. ‘Russia’s recent activities and policies have reduced stability and security, increased unpredictability and changed the security environment,’ says the communiqué. As a result, NATO remains ‘open to political dialogue’ but must not only suspend ‘all practical civilian and military cooperation’ with Russia but also take steps to enhance its ‘deterrence and defence posture’ (7).
Of the steps taken at the summit to implement this commitment, the most important is to deploy, in rotation, multinational combat battalions in Poland and the three Baltic republics, with the US, UK, Canada and Germany each assuming leadership of one unit. These deployments are notable because they represent the first semi-permanent garrison of NATO forces on the territory of the former Soviet Union, and imply that any skirmish with Russian forces in the Baltic region could trigger a full-scale (possibly nuclear) war.
It became clear that nuclear escalation is still a very real consideration in the minds of western leaders soon after the NATO summit, when Britain’s new prime minister Theresa May, in her first major parliamentary appearance after assuming office, won a vote on 18 July to preserve and enhance the Trident nuclear missile programme. ‘The nuclear threat has not gone away,’ she told parliament. ‘If anything, it has increased’ (8). On this basis, she asked British lawmakers to approve a multiyear £41bn ($53bn) plan to maintain and modernise the UK’s fleet of missile-carrying submarines.
Analysing the other’s moves
When explaining the need to prepare for a major war against a high-end enemy, US and European analysts usually point to Russian aggression in Ukraine and Chinese adventurism in the South China Sea (9). Western military moves, it is claimed, are an undesired but necessary reaction to provocations by others. But probe more deeply into the thinking of senior leaders and a different picture emerges. Running throughout this discussion is a pervasive anxiety that the world has changed in significant ways, and that the strategic advantages once possessed by the West are slipping away as other powers gain increased military and geopolitical leverage. In this new era — ‘a time of renewed great power competition’ as Carter put it — the US’s military might no longer appears as formidable as it once did, while the military capabilities of rival powers appear increasingly potent.
When speaking of Russia’s moves in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, western analysts highlight what they view as the illegal nature of the Russian intervention. But their real concern is over evidence that Russian investment in enhanced military capabilities over the past decade is beginning to bear fruit. Whereas western observers largely dismissed the Russian forces in the wars in Chechnya and South Ossetia as substandard, those deployed in Crimea and Syria are believed to be well-equipped and high quality. ‘Russia has made significant strides in developing the capability to use force effectively,’ noted the INSS report.
Western observers have also been impressed by the growing strength and effectiveness of the Chinese military. China’s ability to convert low-lying reefs and atolls in the South China Sea into islands capable of housing substantial military installations has surprised and alarmed US military officials, who had long viewed the area as an American lake. Although the US still enjoys air and naval superiority in the region, these bold moves suggest that China has become a significant military competitor and a growing future challenge.
Under these circumstances, strategists see no option but to acquire capabilities that will enable the US to retain a significant military advantage over all potential rivals for decades, and prevent them from imposing their will on the international system and undermining vital US interests. And this means emphasising the big-war threats that justify lavish spending on the super-sophisticated weapons needed to defeat a high-end enemy.
Of the $583bn in Carter’s February US defence budget, $71.4bn will be allocated to research and development on new, advanced weapons — an amount greater than the entire defence budget of all but a few other countries. ‘We have to do this,’ Carter said, ‘to stay ahead of future threats in a changing world, as other nations try to catch on to the advantages that we have enjoyed for decades, in areas like precision-guided munitions, stealth, cyber and space’ (10).
Expenditure on advanced arms
Besides these research efforts, mammoth sums will be spent on the acquisition of advanced weapons intended to overcome Russian and Chinese defensive systems and bolster US military capabilities in potential areas of conflict, such as the Baltic and the western Pacific. Some $12bn will be spent over the next five years on preliminary development of the B-21 Long-Range Strike Bomber, a stealth aircraft capable of carrying thermonuclear weapons and designed to penetrate Russia’s heavily defended airspace (11). To counter Chinese gains in the Pacific, the Pentagon will acquire additional Virginia-class submarines and Burke-class guided missile destroyers, and begin deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system in South Korea — an anti-missile system meant to defend against attacks from North Korea, but which could also bring down Chinese missiles.
A President Clinton or Trump would put their own stamp on military policy. But it is highly unlikely that the current emphasis on planning for a major conflict with Russia and/or China will disappear, no matter who wins the election. Clinton already has the support of many neocons, who consider her more trustworthy than Trump and more hawkish than Obama. Trump has repeatedly stated his determination to rebuild the US’s ‘depleted’ military capability, and has chosen former generals as key foreign policy advisers. He has largely focused on the fight against ISIS, and said that ‘if our country got along with Russia, that would be a great thing.’ But he has also expressed concern that China is ‘building a ... fortress in the South China Sea’ and has emphasised the need to invest in new weapons systems more than Obama has done, or Clinton during her time in government (12).
So should we expect military posturing and muscle-flexing in highly contested areas like eastern Europe and the South China Sea to become the new normal, with a risk of accident, miscalculation and unintended escalation? The US, Russia and China have all signalled that they will deploy more forces in these areas, in more frequent and elaborate military exercises. Any of these could produce an accidental clash between the major powers, precipitating an uncontrolled chain of events culminating in full-scale war.
An equally dangerous outcome is the growing militarisation of international relations, with the major powers more inclined to threaten military action than to resolve disputes at the negotiation table. This is not unprecedented: Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers and other pre-first world war accounts describe how European leaders were induced by military officers to favour armed over diplomatic responses to perceived affronts, hastening the onset of mass slaughter.
Although military thinkers in the West have embraced the big-war approach with particular enthusiasm, this outlook has powerful advocates in Russia and China — actions on both sides tend to reinforce the arguments made by their military thinkers. It is clear that the problem is not East or West, but rather the shared assumption that a full-scale war between the major powers is entirely possible and requires urgent military preparations. Only by repudiating this assumption — by demonstrating how such preparations more often precipitate than discourage the outbreak of conflict — will it be possible to eliminate the risk of unintended escalation and improve the chances for success in overcoming other urgent dangers.
Original text in English
(2) See Alexander Mattelaer, ‘The NATO Warsaw Summit: How to Strengthen Alliance Cohesion (PDF)’, Strategic Forum, INSS/NDU, June 2016.
(4) US Department of Defence, ‘Remarks by Secretary Carter on the Budget at the Economic Club of Washington, DC’, 2 February 2016.
(5) Secretary of Defence Ash Carter, ‘Submitted Statement — Senate Appropriations Committee — Defence (FY 2017 Budget Request)’, 27 April 2016.
(8) As quoted in Stephen Castle, ‘Britain’s New Leader Wins Votes to Renew Nuclear Program’, The New York Times, 19 July 2016.
(10) US Department of Defence, ‘Remarks by Secretary Carter on the Budget at the Economic Club of Washington DC’, op cit.
(11) Secretary of Defence Ash Carter, ‘Submitted Statement — Senate Appropriations Committee — Defence (FY 2017 Budget Request)’, op cit.