One of these days, the “forever war” between Russia and Ukraine will be over, and the serious challenge of dealing with the strategic triangularity of the United States, Russia, and China will begin. The Biden administration has complicated this task by pursuing a strategy of “dual containment,” believing that the United States can “contain” both Russia and China. Unlike the Soviet Union of the Cold War era, China cannot be “contained.” It is a global economic and political power as well as a formidable military power in the Indo-Pacific region.
The various pipe dreams of the United States are major obstacles to dealing rationally with the strategic triangle. The U.S. belief in huge defense budgets; modernization of strategic forces; military bases and facilities the world over; and the illusion of an anti-missile shield have overwhelmed the task of compromise and negotiation that is essential. Inter-service rivalries and military-industrial triumphs represent additional obstacles. The mainstream media, particularly the New York Times and the Washington Post provide ample cheerleading for the weapons industry. Senator Bernie Sanders’ efforts to reduce defense spending this year engendered little debate and failed by a vote of 88-11. As Walt Kelly’s Pogo said: “We’ve met the enemy and he is us.”
The United States was given an opportunity to stabilize the European theatre in the years from 1989 to 1991, when the Berlin Wall, the Warsaw Pact, and even the Soviet Union came tumbling down. Instead of assuaging the legitimate fears of a weakened Russia, the Clinton and Bush administrations expanded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to Russia’s vulnerable western borders. NATO expansion contributed to the friction between Russia and Ukraine prior to 2014, and it will play a bigger role in the Cold War that follows the “forever war.” It would be interesting to know if any Russian expert in the Department of State or National Security Council over the past 25 years ever suggested that the Kremlin would not forever accept the U.S. political and military advance in East Europe.
Even when a president (George H.W. Bush) and the Pentagon agree to remove a dangerous nuclear weapon from our inventory (such as submarine-launched cruise missiles with nuclear warheads), the Congress comes along to fund a new generation of SLCMs. These missiles are destabilizing due to the limited warning time they offer. They would lead to an arms race that even the so-called “rogue states” could join. North Korea, in fact, is already claiming to have a submarine capable of launching nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, the shipbuilding budget for our Navy is the largest in history.
The United States is primarily responsible for the demise of arms control and disarmament. President George W. Bush’s abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 guaranteed another strategic arms race, which Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev predicted at the time. And Donald Trump’s abrogation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2018 opened the door to new tactical nuclear forces in Europe. Meanwhile, the United States justified regional missile defenses, such as the one in Romania and Poland, to protect against the nuclear plans of “rogue states” such as Iran and North Korea. The fact that the United States has no diplomatic relations with Tehran or Pyongyang adds to the danger. (President Bill Clinton’s intelligence community falsely predicted in the 1990s that North Korea would have operable intercontinental ballistic missiles by 2005. We’re still waiting.)
The military-industrial community’s emphasis on expensive military platforms guarantees annual increases in the defense budget, which finds an unusual area of genuine bipartisan agreement in our polarized Congress. (The only other bipartisan issue is “containment” of China.) The United States Air Force is obsessed with fighter superiority despite the absence of a threat over the past 80 years. The F-35 joint strike fighter, which gave even the late Senator John McCain “sticker shock,” has been burdened with cost overruns, military mismanagement, and little political scrutiny.
Like the Air Force and its dominance of the skies, the Navy has had total dominance at sea for the past eight decades. The Navy is obsessed with its aircraft carriers, but Chinese anti-ship cruise missiles have ensured that U.S. carriers would have to deploy out of range of China’s missiles. The Marines receive great budgetary support, although they have conducted one amphibious landing since the end of World War II, and that was in Korea more than 70 years ago.
The “platform” obsession is particularly germane to the war in Ukraine, where we are told regularly that U.S. military technology will guarantee success against Russian forces. The incremental deployments of HIMAR long-range artillery, Patriot missiles, U.S. and German tanks, the coupling of drones and precision weaponry, and cluster munitions were supposed to turn the tide on the Russian-Ukrainian front. Currently, the possible provision of F-16s and ATACMs are said to be the answer. Meanwhile, the much-ballyhooed Ukrainian counter-offensive has been unimpressive, and the talk of a “forever war” has begun to resonate. A cursory reading of Clausewitz, Giap, Mao, or Trotsky indicates that Ukraine’s offensive prowess would be no match for Russia’s defenses.
Meanwhile, Russia and China are bolstering their own nuclear forces. Russia claims that its new Sarmat ICBM, which can deploy ten or more nuclear warheads and move at hypersonic speeds to outwit defenses, is on “combat duty.” China has abandoned its mini-deterrence of several hundred ICBMs, and may eventually deploy 1,500 nuclear weapons to match U.S. and Russia. (North Korea has tested cruise missiles and underwater drones that could carry nuclear weapons, and refers to its first submarine capable of launching nuclear missiles as operational.) The combination of pilotless aircraft and artificial intelligence will dominate the next round of spending on fighter technology, increasing the risk of accidental attack.
Meanwhile, the United States is using the “dual threats” of Russia and China to advance nuclear modernization, which serves no military purpose. The military-industrial complex has taken advantage of the absence of an arms control lobby to expand a nuclear triad with missiles on land, sea, and strategic bombers. One of the best defense secrets of the post-WWII era has been the high cost of producing and maintaining nuclear weapons, between $5-6 trillion, which represents one-fourth of overall defense spending since 1945. Another $1 trillion will be needed to modernize the nuclear triad over the next decade.
The fact that nuclear weapons have no military utility didn’t stop the United States from building more than 70,000 nuclear weapons since the end of WWII. (Since we no longer have an Arms Control and Disarmament Agency to educate us, thanks to Bill Clinton, it would be worthwhile to watch the movie “Oppenheimer” to get a reminder of nuclear weapons as an instrument of terror and annihilation, not war fighting.) If the current level of 1550 American and Russian warheads is not sufficient for deterrence, moreover, then what level of nuclear sufficiency could assure deterrence.
Twelve years ago, in fact, two Air Force officers wrote an authoritative essay that pointed to 331 nuclear weapons as providing an assured deterrence capability. We need to end our Cold War thinking, and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy. Similarly, we must address our overseas military bases, which number around 700. Russia has two modest facilities in Syria outside of its territorial zone, and China has one on the Horn of Africa that is devoted for the most part to stopping piracy on the high seas.
Meanwhile, Sino-American relations and Russian-American relations are at their lowest levels over the past 25 years. The “forever war” continues; the strategic arms race becomes more intense; the expansion of NATO permanently threatens Russia’s western border; and there is no substantive U.S. diplomatic dialogue with Moscow or Beijing. And just think: Donald Trump could be the steward for the next geopolitical era. If that isn’t a strategic nightmare for the near term, then I can’t imagine how much more chaos and uncertainty is required.
Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University. A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.