In the period preceding the World War I how many Europeans suspected that their lives would soon be forever changed – and, for millions of them, ended? Who in the years, say, 1910 to 1913, could have imagined that the decades of peace, progress, and civilization in which they had grown up, and which seemingly would continue indefinitely, instead would soon descend into a horror of industrial-scale slaughter, revolution, and brutal ideologies?
The answer is, probably very few, just as few people today care much about the details of international and security affairs. Normal folk have better things to do with their lives.
To be sure, in that bygone era of smug jingosim, there was always the entertainment aspect that “our” side had forced “theirs” to back down in some exotic locale, as in the Fashoda incident (1898) or the Moroccan crises (1906, 1911). Even the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 seemed less a harbinger of the cataclysm to come than local dustups on the edge of the continent where the general peace had not been disturbed even by the much more disruptive Crimean or Franco-Prussian wars.
Besides, no doubt level-headed statesmen were in charge in the various capitals, ensuring that things wouldn’t get out of hand.
Until they did.
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A notable exception to the prevailing mood of business-as-usual, nothing-to-see-here-folks was Pyotr Durnovo, whose remarkable February 1914 memorandum to Tsar Nicholas II laid out not only what the great powers would do in the approaching general war but the behavior of the minor countries as well. Moreover, he anticipated that in the event of defeat, Russia, destabilized by unchecked socialist “agitation” amid wartime hardships, would “be flung into hopeless anarchy, the issue of which cannot be foreseen.” Germany, likewise, was “destined to suffer, in case of defeat, no lesser social upheavals” and “take a purely revolutionary path” of a nationalist hue.
When the great powers blundered into war in August 1914, each confident of its ability speedily to dispatch its rivals, the price (adding in the toll from the 1939-1945 rematch) was upwards of 70 million lives. But the cost of a comparable mistake today might be literally incalculable – if there’s anyone left to do the tally.
During the first Cold War between the US and the USSR, there was a general sense that a World War III was, in a word, unthinkable. As summed up by Ronald Reagan: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Then, it was understood that all-out war, however it started, meant massed ICBMs over the North Pole and the “end of civilization as we know it.”
Not anymore. What was unthinkable in the old Cold War has become all-too-thinkable in the new one between the US and Russia. As described by veteran arms control inspector Scott Ritter, in analyzing a draft of the 2018 US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the US threshold for the use of nuclear weapons has become dangerously low:
‘The 2018 NPR has a vision of nuclear conflict that goes far beyond the traditional imagery of mass missile launches. While ICBMs and manned bombers will be maintained on a day-to-day alert, the tip of the nuclear spear is now what the NPR calls “supplemental” nuclear forces – dual-use aircraft such as the F-35 fighter armed with B-61 gravity bombs capable of delivering a low-yield nuclear payload, a new generation of nuclear-tipped submarine-launched cruise missiles, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles tipped with a new generation of low-yield nuclear warheads. The danger inherent with the integration of these kinds of tactical nuclear weapons into an overall strategy of deterrence is that it fundamentally lowers the threshold for their use. […]
‘Noting that the United States has never adopted a “no first use” policy, the 2018 NPR states that “it remains the policy of the United States to retain some ambiguity regarding the precise circumstances that might lead to a US nuclear response.” In this regard, the NPR states that America could employ nuclear weapons under “extreme circumstances that could include significant non-nuclear strategic attacks.” … The issue of “non-nuclear strategic attack technologies” as a potential precursor for nuclear war is a new factor that previously did not exist in American policy. The United States has long held that chemical and biological weapons represent a strategic threat for which America’s nuclear deterrence capability serves as a viable counter. But the threat from cyber attacks is different. If for no other reason than the potential for miscalculation and error in terms of attribution and intent, the nexus of cyber and nuclear weapons should be disconcerting for everyone. […]
‘Even more disturbing is the notion that a cyber intrusion such as the one perpetrated against the Democratic National Committee and attributed to Russia could serve as a trigger for nuclear war. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. The DNC event has been characterized by influential American politicians, such as the Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, as “an act of war.” Moreover, former vice president Joe Biden hinted that, in the aftermath of the DNC breach, the United States was launching a retaliatory cyberattack of its own, targeting Russia. The possibility of a tit-for-tat exchange of cyberattacks that escalates into a nuclear conflict would previously have been dismissed out of hand; today, thanks to the 2018 NPR, it has entered the realm of the possible.’
The idea that a first-strike Schlieffen Plan could knock out the Russians (and no doubt similar contingencies are in place for China) at the outset of hostilities reflects a dangerous illusion of predictability. Truth may be the first casualty of war, but “the plan” is inevitably the second. That’s because war planners generally don’t consult the enemy, who – annoyingly for the planners – also gets a vote.
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Recently US Secretary of Defense James Mattis declared that “great power competition – not terrorism – is now the primary focus of US national security,” specifying Russia and China as nations seeking to “create a world consistent with their authoritarian models, pursuing veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic and security decisions.” At least we can drop the pretense that US policy has been to fight jihad terrorism, not to use it as a policy tool in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere. And of course Washington never, ever meddles in “other nations’ economic, diplomatic and security decisions” . . .
There is much anticipation that release of a House Intelligence Committee memo “naming names” of those in the FBI and elsewhere inside and outside of government to thwart the election of Donald Trump and cripple his administration with a phony Russian “collusion” probe will be a silver bullet that upturns the Mueller probe and cleans the Augean stables of the Deep State. Even in that unlikely case, the damage is already done. The primary purpose of Russiagate was always to ensure Trump could not reach out to Moscow, as seems to be his sincere desire. Even as the narrative began to boomerang against those who launched it, Trump’s defenders (such as fanatical Russophobe Nikki Haley) are as adamant as his detractors that Russia is and will remain the main enemy: Russia was behind the Steele Dossier, Russia tried to “corner the market” on “the foundational material for nuclear weapons” with the Uranium One deal, etc. Hostility toward Russia is not a means to an end – it is the end.
At this point Trump is fastened to the neocons’ and generals’ axle, and all he can do is spin. Echoing Mattis, in his State of the Union speech Trump lumped “rivals like China and Russia” together with “rogue regimes” and “terrorist groups” as “horrible dangers” to the United States. (Note: The word “horrible” does not appear in the posted text. That evidently was Trump’s adlib.) The recently issued “name and shame” list of prominent Russians is a veritable Who’s Who of government and business, ensuring that there’s no American engagement with anyone within screaming distance of the Kremlin.
To be fair, the Russians and Chinese are making their own war preparations. Russia’s “Kanyon,” a doomsday nuclear torpedo carrying a massive warhead, is designed to obliterate the U.S east and west coasts, rendering them inhabitable for generations. (Wait a minute. Is it any coincidence, Comrade, that the coastal cities are just where the Democrats’ electoral strength is? Talk about “collusion!” Somebody call Bob Mueller!) For its part, China is developing means to eliminate our white elephant carrier groups – handy for pummeling Third World backwaters but useless in a war with a major power – with drone swarms and hypersonic missiles.
Just as in 1914, when Durnovo referred to “presence of abundant combustible material in Europe,” there is any number of global flashpoints that could turn Mattis’s “great power competition” into a major conflagration that probably was not desired by anyone. However, if the worst happens, and the lamps go out again – maybe this time forever – Americans will not again be immune from the consequences as we were in the wars of the 20th century. The remainder of our lives, however brief, might turn out very differently from what we had anticipated.