Thursday, August 14, 2014

When Confidence Fails

Few who lived through the Cold War with its constant threat of nuclear annihilation realize the role confidence played in preventing an outbreak of apocalyptic hostilities.  Even at times when we thought the "other side" might be nearing the point of pre-emptive attack, we had a sufficient degree of confidence that they would do no such thing.  The Red Telephone that connected the White House to the Kremlin was specifically intended as an instrument for maintaining confidence.

The Cuban missile crisis demonstrated the leadership needed to maintain confidence - and peace - in stressful circumstances.  Kennedy was being pulled by contradictory advice given by competing forces some of which demanded a shooting war.  In the end, Kennedy's confidence in Khrushchev prevailed and a diplomatic result was obtained but it was a very close call.

Today I sense that we have discounted the importance of confidence and confidence-building between major powers.  Under Bush/Cheney, America drove NATO right up to Russia's doorstep.  That was an act of diplomatic aggression that showed no interest in maintaining, much less building, confidence between west and east. It was both a threat to Russia and a humiliation of Vlad Putin. Imagine if Russia reached a pact with Mexico and wound up parking tanks, surface to air missile batteries and mobile rocket artillery along the south bank of the Rio Grande.

What has the Ukraine conflict become?  It resembles a proxy war reminiscent of the Cold War era.  We support the west-leaning government that ousted the previous democratically-elected (yet horribly corrupt) government in a coup. Putin sees us as interlopers, meddlers, once again wreaking mischief at Russia's doorstep.  That he took Crimea should have been expected.  That he should support pro-Russia rebels seeking to pry loose the Donetsk region is equally predictable.

It's probably safe to say that the confidence level between Putin and western leaders has fallen into an abyss.  We have imposed successive waves of sanctions against Russia and its leaders.  We have actually threatened Russia with dire consequences that await if it doesn't leave Ukraine alone.  NATO Secretary General Anders "Foggy" Rasmussen, an avowed and bellicose neoliberal, is using the final months of his tenure to get straight into Putin's face.  He gives the impression that he's just itching to see NATO jets over the Ukraine before he's put out to pasture.  There are plenty of other prominent hawks in Rasmussen's camp including our own warrior-prince, Stephen Harper.

The German financial newspaper, Handelsblatt, recently warned that the people of the west are being "mentally mobilized" for war by our corporate mass media cartel.  This could hardly have gone unnoticed by the Kremlin.

And what happens when confidence plummets?  Rearmament is one usual result. Rearmament that further undermines confidence.  Russia is rearming with a new strategic bomber, a new ballistic missile that may breach one or more of its treaty obligations, two new submarine designs and a dandy new stealth fighter designed to turn F-35s into lawn ornaments.  Is this a Russian provocation? Hardly.

America kicked off today's arms race when Bush/Cheney introduced the incredibly bellicose Bush Doctrine that threatened friend and adversary alike with the use of pre-emptive and overwhelming military force against any country or group of countries that should deign to rival America militarily or economically.  That was accompanied by a massive increase in military spending focused on achieving enormous technological advances that would leave all other nations so far behind that they couldn't catch up.  Out of that depraved mentality emerged the F-35.

For Beijing, a real confidence-buster came with the staging of "Operation Chimichanga", a full scale, dress rehearsal of a pre-emptive "first strike" stealth attack on China to render the Peoples Republic defenceless.  Provocative, yes. Confidence building, plainly not.

America is doing no end of sabre-rattling and we're playing our part in it also.  Our foreign policy has been subsumed into America's.  The F-35 is our admission ticket into America's Aerial Foreign Legion.  There's a reason American commanders refer to it as their "kick in the front door weapon."

On this, the centenary of World War One, it's important to remember that not all wars are intended or even desired.  History shows it's remarkably easy for leaders to back us into wars of durations and dimensions that were never foreseen.  It doesn't take much - an arms race here or there, sabre-rattling and other provocations, a power vacuum real or perceived, the "mental mobilization" of society - go ahead, light the fuse.

Without seeming to recognize it, we're creating an incredibly dangerous world packed with stressors such as arms races; geo-political transitions with contested spheres of influence; power vacuums and the rise of failed states; militarized foreign policy; economic, resource and territorial rivalries; and, of course, early onset climate change impacts, all under the umbrella of western neoliberalism. What could possibly go wrong?


Troy Thomas said...

For almost twenty years, the West had all a huge opportunity to reconcile with Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union.
However, it is all probably moot, now. The West has been continually disrupting Russian allies, as well as forcing NATO right to Russia's doorstep.
If we're lucky, NATO doesn't stumble into war with Russia before the Winter.

The Mound of Sound said...

Absolutely, Troy. The West missed plenty of opportunities to forge a stable and lasting relationship with Russia on the collapse of the USSR.

I worried at the time that Russia might transition to a capitalist state too quickly creating winners, the oligarchs, and losers, the Russian people. Capitalism should have been eased in first and then the country should have progressed gradually to liberal democracy by first entrenching the rule of law accompanied by the introduction of real rights and freedoms both protecting individuals and restraining state power and only then should the country have been organized to support democracy. There was really no time to set up parties with membership-driven platforms to present choice to the electorate.

We greeted the emergence of the new Russia with Cold War triumphalism. Any doubts about our own flawed apparatus were submerged in the triumph of the West over the East. We almost treated Eastern Europe as spoils of victory as we ushered these countries into the EU and NATO without regard to whether some of them were ready to shoulder those responsibilities.

Our descent into neoliberal authoritarianism has produced a class of leaders bereft of statesmanship who default to militarized foreign policy in lieu of meaningful diplomacy. This is particularly true of the U.S. where the threat or use of military force is often seen as the principle instrument of foreign policy. In the process our democracy becomes steadily more illiberal. All of these trends heighten the risk of inadvertent war.