Jan 6, 2023

The New Cold War Could Be Worse

Photograph Source: The White House – Public Domain

More than one-third of the U.S. population was born after 1970, and thus has no personal memories of the Cold War, particularly the Berlin crises or the Cuban missile crisis.  Since we are in the early stages of a new Cold War, it’s a good time to review the tensions that we will confront.  Spoiler alert: Cold War 2.0 will be more costly and risky than its predecessor.

The soaring defense budget, which is woefully understated in the mainstream media, is the Congress’ pet rock and its only genuine bipartisan undertaking.  The media consistently refers to the record defense budget ($858 billion), but ignore an additional $300 billion that is devoted to the military.  The latter figure would include important elements of spending by the intelligence community, which primarily serves the military; the Department of Energy, which stores our nuclear inventory; the Veterans’ Administration; and important agencies of the Department of Homeland Security, which include the Coast Guard, the world’s seventh largest navy.  The roughly $1.2 trillion devoted to defense equals the sum that the rest of the global community allocates to the military!

The bloated defense budget, moreover, does not take into account the huge military expenditures of key nations in Europe and Asia that support the national security interests of the United States.  In addition to the 31 other nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that devote huge sums of money to contain Russia, there are the increased defense budgets of such Asian states as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan that target China.  The United States is also the world’s leading arms merchant, selling and providing more weapons overseas than the rest of the global community.  Saudi Arabia, the leading buyer of U.S. weaponry, allocates more money to defense than any non-nuclear state in the world with a budget that roughly equals the defense spending of Russia.

The greatest drivers of U.S. defense spending are the modernization of nuclear weapons, which have no utilitarian purpose, and the obscene U.S. military presence the world over.  The Pentagon will receive $2 trillion over the next decade to create a new generation of nuclear-armed bombers and submarines.  The global race for smaller nuclear bombs is also intensifying with no arms control treaties regulating so-called tactical or nonstrategic nuclear weapons.

We have hundreds of military facilities around the world, whereas China has only one facility on the Horn of Africa and the Russians have two facilities in Syria.  Neither Russia nor China devote vast sums to power projection; most of their defense spending is devoted to defending the homeland.  It is long past time for someone in Congress to investigate why the United States has to maintain military dominance in every corner of the globe.

The policy of dual containment of Russia and China carries far greater risk than U.S. policy in the first Cold War.  Current Russian and Chinese leaders either have no limits on their use of power (Vladimir Putin) or have greater international ambition than previous leaders (Xi Jinping).  Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev had to deal with a Politburo in crises involving Cuba and the Middle East, respectively, which were resolved peacefully. The United States is risking an arms race not only against Russia, but against China as well.  New weapons such as hypersonic missiles and cyber weapons that threaten command and control systems are unsettling.  Pentagon spokesmen have sent increasingly alarming warnings regarding China staging a “strategic breakout,” whatever that means.

Unlike the first Cold War, which was restrained due to respect for arms control and disarmament, the new Cold War is more threatening in view of the decline and fall of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (blame Bill Clinton); the abrogation of the ABM Treaty (George W. Bush); the suspension of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (Putin); and the abrogation of Intermediate-Nuclear Forces Treaty (Donald Trump).  Biden’s lackluster national security team doesn’t even have an arms control specialist, and the Department of Defense, led by a retired four-star general, has replaced the Department of State at the center of the national security process.  Civilians should be calling the shots and not general officers.

The first Cold War was marked by Soviet-American recognition of the necessity of avoiding direct conflict in the wake of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, and to ensure direct military-to-military communication; there is far less direct communication between the two sides at this juncture.  Our allies in the first Cold War did their best to maintain communication with the Kremlin; currently our allies are expanding their defense budgets and cooperating in the fields of cybersecurity and defense technology.  The budgetary increases in Germany and Japan are particularly stunning with Japan becoming only the second country allowed to purchase U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles as part of its unprecedented military buildup.

Meanwhile, the United States has become a participant in the war between Russia and Ukraine, and President Joe Biden has kept his predecessors anti-China policies in place, including Trump’s tariff policies, closer relations with Taiwan, and a military buildup in the Pacific.  In Congress, the Democrats and Republicans provide bipartisan support for increased defense spending and relentlessly compete with each other in their anti-China rhetoric.  It is reminiscent of the 1950s when no one wanted to be accused of “being soft” on China.

The United States remains increasingly isolated from both Russia and China at the same time that Moscow and Beijing are building the closest bilateral relationship in hundreds of years of history.  The competition over Taiwan risks a conflict in the Taiwan Straits; the warfare in Ukraine risks conflict in the Black Sea.  The United States may believe that it is not a “participant” in the war in Ukraine, but the use of U.S.-supplied HIMARs on New Year’s Day to kill and injure several hundred Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine sends a different message.

The Middle East and Southwest Asia provide additional sources of tension.  Biden should have returned to the Iran nuclear accord at the outset of his administration; instead, the Biden administration talked about rewrites to the agreement and Iran predictably objected.  Israel has installed a dangerous right-wing government, but the Pentagon now refers to Israel as our “leading strategic partner.” Biden threatened to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” but instead he went hat-in-hand to Riyadh and negotiated $4 billion in arms sales. Syria and Lebanon are failed states, and invite foreign interference. The new regional stresses on stability and the  challenges for deterrence vis-a-vis Russia and China do not augur well for a more predictable or peaceful international arena.

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