In certain quarters in this country, Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has generated enthusiasm for a new cold war. At the New York Times, Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin have been described as “children of the [old] Cold War” now involved in a “face off,” an “eyeball to eyeball” confrontation harkening back to John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev contesting Berlin and Cuba in “dramatic fashion” 60 years ago. (Never mind that the “drama” over Cuba nearly led to nuclear war and the possible end of most life on Earth.) Such breathless accounts make me think of the role Slim Pickens played as Major Kong in Stanley Kubrick’s famed film Dr. Strangelove, giddy with resolve, even relief of a kind, now that he and his B-52 crew are finally headed for nuclear combat with the Russkies.
Whatever else one might say of the crisis in Ukraine, the new cold war dreamscape that Washington think tanks and the Pentagon helped promulgate over the last decade against Russia or China or both is here to stay. Consider that a calamity in its own right. The end of America’s failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the disastrous results of America’s Global War on Terror launched amid a barrage of lies and self-praise, might indeed have left an opening, however slight, for a shift away from colossal military budgets and creeping militarization.
Russia’s ill-planned and immoral invasion of Ukraine marks the definitive end of that possibility, however small it might have been. Putin’s actions, whatever their motivation and justification, are being seized upon by the military-industrial-congressional complex as proof positive that Pentagon budgets, already in the stratosphere, must soar higher yet. For so many of the Putin-haters (and I’m no fan), his destructive actions supposedly demonstrate why the U.S. must be prepared to double down in kind.
That, of course, means yet more weapons production and sales globally for the country that’s already the planet’s leading purveyor of such products. It also means more bellicose rhetoric, and ultimately more militarism, because that’s all Putin and his authoritarian ilk will allegedly ever understand (as is sadly true of so many in Washington as well). Consider all this a peculiar form of American madness, akin to the idea that a guy with a gun, or better yet, lots of guys with lots of guns, the more powerful the better, are the sanest way to prevent gun violence.
Thought about a certain way, in taking such an approach, our government and, by extension, the American people are ceding our autonomy of thought and action to “bad actors” like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. For every war Putin launches, America, so we’re told, must respond with yet more weapons sales, troop deployments, debilitating sanctions, and above all, astronomically higher military spending. For every aircraft carrier the Chinese build, or any new expansion onto yet another tiny island in the South China Sea, the U.S. military must “pivot” harder toward Asia, while building yet more staggeringly expensive ships of its own. As possibilities, disengagement and détente go unmentioned. “Peace” isn’t a word American presidents favor anymore. As a result, even modest military moves by Putin and Xi are essentially guaranteed to drive the U.S. economy yet deeper into militarized debt. (As if $6 trillion already squandered on the disastrous war on terror wasn’t pricey enough.) After all, full-spectrum dominance over the global battlespace, a fantasy in the “best” of times, and a new cold war won’t come cheap, a fact that U.S. weapons manufacturers are surely banking on.
Even before the recent Russian invasion, estimates for the fiscal year 2023 Pentagon budget had risen to $770 billion or even $800 billion. With Russian tanks now rolling through (or stalled in) Ukraine, you can bet your bottom dollar that $800 billion will be the floor, not the ceiling for that future budget and the Pentagon’s 2023 demands from Congress. This country, we’re once again hearing, is to be the arsenal of democracy (to steal a phrase from the World War II era). But count on this: if you’re not careful an arsenal of democracy can easily enough devolve into little more than an arsenal. And that time, I suspect, is now.
The World Is Not Enough
Don’t misunderstand me: I condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s a horror and an obvious disaster in the making. That said, Russia may have a super nuclear arsenal, but it’s not a superpower, despite all those Cold War memories of ours, nor does its attack on Ukraine, in and of itself, pose a major threat to our own national security. Indeed, experts around the world have been predicting for decades that NATO expansion, exacerbated by U.S. meddling in Ukraine, could provoke Vladimir Putin to launch just such a war. In short, Russia’s invasion was indeed predictable, even if not faintly excusable.
Nor are the Russian president’s designs on Ukraine and his quest for greater power in eastern Europe historically surprising. In fact, serious self-reflection should lead us to the obvious conclusion that the scale of Russia’s ambitions, objectionable as they might be, are also limited compared to ours.
Again, Russia remains a distinctly regional power, while the United States still fancies itself to be the last remaining superpower on planet Earth. No other country comes close to the scale of our global ambitions (and they’re higher still, if you count this country’s Trump-era Space Force with its vision that the heavens are but the next “warfighting domain” for us to dominate). In other words, in this century, when it came to our military, the world was not enough. All realms were to be under its command: land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace. Note, in fact, that we have a military force or special military command for all of them and our leaders simply take for granted that such dominance is to be ours and no one else’s.
Think about it. Of all the countries on Earth, only the U.S. divides the entire globe into military commands run by four-star generals and admirals; only America has 750 or so military bases scattered across every continent except Antarctica; only America sees a country — I’m thinking here of Ukraine (although not so long ago it could have been Afghanistan or Iraq), roughly 5,000 miles away across a vast ocean, as its legitimate eastern flank. At the same time, only this country sees a body of water like the South China Sea as a lake for its Navy to navigate and dominate, as if it were part of our coastal waters.
Imagine, for a moment, that Russia or China had an America Command, an AMERCOM. Imagine that Russian advisors were training and equipping Canadian troops, while Chinese aircraft carrier task forces regularly sailed the Gulf of Mexico. As Americans, we, of course, can’t imagine such things and yet that’s the world we inhabit, even if in reverse.
Most of us seem to consider the imperial ambitions of this country, including the eventual expansion of NATO into Ukraine and Georgia and the continued deployment of powerful aircraft carrier battlegroups near the coast of China, as benign, uncontroversial evidence of our military resolve. Under the circumstances, it shouldn’t be that hard to recognize that others on this planet might not feel quite the same way.
That America’s pursuit of global reach and global power would be seen as a challenge, indeed a provocation, by a regional power like Russia or one with full-scale imperial ambitions, even if of a largely economic sort, like China with its trillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative, should surprise no one. Under the circumstances, it was inevitable that, sooner or later, this country’s continued pursuit of full-spectrum dominance would produce a new cold war, as certain American experts predicted, and some seemed to desire. Think of the chaotic and disturbed world we’re now living in as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, as well as a rare “triumph” of long-term strategic planning by certain elements within the national security state. What they wished for, they got. Today, it should be all too obvious that the results are anything but pleasing.
Your Role as a Loyal American in the New Cold War
My fellow Americans, in this new cold war of ours, the national security state expects both all too much and all too little of you. Let’s start with the little. It doesn’t expect you to enlist in the military if you’re rich or have “other priorities” (as former Vice President Dick Cheney said about the Vietnam War). It doesn’t expect you to pay close attention to our wars, let alone foreign policy. You don’t even have to vote. It does, however, expect you to cheer at the right times, be “patriotic,” wave the flag, gush about America, and celebrate its fabulous, militarized exceptionalism.
To enlist in this country’s cheerleading squad, which is of course God’s squad, you might choose to wear a flag lapel pin and affix a “Support Our Troops” sticker to your SUV. You should remind everyone that “freedom isn’t free” and that “God, guns, and guts” made America great. If the godly empire says Ukraine is a worthy friend, you might add a blue-and-yellow “frame” to your Facebook profile photo. If that same empire tells you to ignore ongoing U.S. drone strikes in Somalia and U.S. support for an atrocious Saudi war in Yemen, you are expected to comply. Naturally, you’ll also be expected to pay your taxes without complaint, for how else are we to buy all the weapons and wage all the wars that America needs to keep the peace?
Naturally, certain people need to be collectively despised in our very own version of George Orwell’s “Two Minutes Hate.” So, when Putin’s visage comes on the screen, or Xi’s, or Kim Jong-un’s, or whoever the enemy du jour is, be prepared to express your outrage. Be prepared to treat them as aliens, almost incomprehensible in their barbarity, as if, in fact, they were Klingons in the original Star Trek series. As a peaceful member of the “Federation,” dominated by the United States, you must, of course, reject those Klingon nations and their warrior vision of life, their embrace of might-makes-right, choosing instead the logic, balance, and diplomacy of America’s enlightened State Department (backed up, of course, by the world’s greatest military).
Again, little is expected of you (so far) except your obedience, which should be enthusiastic rather than reluctant. Yet whether you know it or not, much is expected of you as well. You must surrender any hopes and dreams you’ve harbored of a fairer, kinder, more equitable and just society. For example, military needs in the new cold war simply won’t allow us to “build back better.” Forget about money for childcare, a $15 federal minimum wage, affordable healthcare for all, better schools, or similar “luxuries.” Maybe in some distant future (or some parallel universe), we’ll be able to afford such things, but not when we’re faced with the equivalent of the Klingon Empire that must be stopped at any cost.
But wait! I hear some of you saying that it doesn’t have to be this way! And I agree. A better future could be imagined. A saying of John F. Kennedy’s comes to mind: “We shall be judged more by what we do at home than what we preach abroad.” What we’re currently doing at home is building more weapons, sinking more tax dollars into the Pentagon, and enriching more warrior-corporations at the expense of the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable. Where’s the democratic future in that?
Sheer military might, our leaders seem to believe, will keep them forever riding high in the saddle. Yet you can ride too high in any saddle, making the fall that’s coming that much more precipitous and dangerous.
Americans, acting in concert, could stop that fall, but not by giving our current crop of leaders a firmer grasp of the reins. Do that and they’ll just spur this nation to greater heights of military folly. No, we must have the courage to unseat them from their saddles, strip them of their guns, and corral their war horses, before they lead us into yet another disastrously unending cold war that could threaten the very existence of humanity. We need to find another way that doesn’t prioritize weapons and war, but values compromise, compassion, and comity.
At this late date, I’m not sure we can do it. I only know that we must.
William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, is a TomDispatch regular and a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals. His personal blog is Bracing Views.