The threat of war between the major powers has never been greater since the 1930s. Just as then, the international community has abandoned any ambitions it once had for comprehensive disarmament. Military budgets are being expanded, capabilities enhanced and confrontations escalated.
All this is in sharp contrast to the end of the Second World War, when the over-riding priority was to build a framework for comprehensive disarmament through the United Nations. Military preparations, however characterised as defensive, had to be contained since they created their own dynamic of response and counter response. But hopes for a lasting peace were crushed by the onset of the Cold War with its vast consumption of resources on nuclear and conventional armaments, rather than on desperately needed, international development. The United Nations, itself, has become a creature of the major powers, compliant in the growth of a militarist international system and a vast arms trade driven by the permanent members of the Security Council.
The United States, Russia and China are dominated by their respective, military-industrial complexes. Through the constant drip-feed of enemy images and the spectre of existential threat engineered through compliant, mainstream media, they cynically condition their populations to accept the new arms race as inevitable, with permanent war mobilisation and authoritarian state controls. And all in the name of that gigantic fraud, national security. Stripped down to its ideological essentials, this is the requirement to maintain the wealth and power of capitalist elites and to legitimise their exploitation of working people.
The United Nations is not fit for purpose and has failed in its fundamental responsibility. We need a new framework constructed around a working-class internationalism for comprehensive disarmament and common security. Productive capacity must be focused, not on a new arms race, but on the real, existential threat of irreversible climate change and the construction of a post-carbon economy that benefits all working people around the world. The ultimate objective is to create an international system based on working-class solidarity, where the preparations for war are as unacceptable as war itself.
America First became the rallying call of the Trump campaign during the presidential election of 2016, as if previous administrations had not maintained global military supremacy through invasion, occupation, and more recently, through clandestine warfare using special operations forces and drone strikes. What Trump has done is to strip away some of the ritual incantations about collective security through alliances and laid bare the essential truth of US power. Only the United States has the right to intervene anywhere in the world that it chooses and to reject any international agreements that could be interpreted as advantageous to other countries, at the expense of US military and corporate interests.
The increase in planned military spending from $610 billion in 2017 to $716 billion in 2019 is consistent with previous Republican administrations, notably Reagan in the early 1980s and Bush in the early 2000s.[i]It reflects a profoundly capitalist and militarist ideological agenda. According to the neo-conservatives who have dominated US foreign policy under both Republican and Democratic administrations, the United States needed a global presence to protect its strategic interests, even after the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s
‘Full-spectrum dominance’ was achievable through a network of military bases and carrier fleets, the deployment of land and sea forces capable of both conventional warfare and special operations, and their co-ordination through space-based, intelligence systems. Access to resources was paramount and to be achieved by propping up or installing pro-Western regimes in key regions like the Middle East, while maintaining overwhelming military-technological supremacy against any potential rival.
Russia and China are seen as the main challengers to US hegemony, this despite speculation of Russian interference in the presidential campaign through alleged, clandestine support for Trump. Whatever the truth of those allegations, Putin has built his domestic authority and popular base on the fear of encirclement by Nato forces, and with some justification. The original settlement between the United States and the USSR, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, was for the removal of all Russian forces previously deployed in Eastern Europe and for substantial reductions in overall troop numbers. In return, the United State pledged that there would be a new, ‘inclusive’, European security architecture, clearly indicating no further extension of membership to countries previously in the Warsaw Pact or bordering Russia.[ii]
By the creation of what would, effectively, be a demilitarized zone, the USSR had the assurance that an invasion like the one which took such a devastating toll in the Second World War could never happen again. Gorbachev was the main architect of this, the last peace initiative by the leader of one of the major powers. He hoped that demilitarization in Europe, combined with significant concessions on nuclear weapons, would act as confidence-building measures for further and deeper cuts, leading to comprehensive disarmament.[iii]
The United States, as the hegemonic world power, never had any intentions of honouring the pledge on Nato, nor of participating in a disarmament agenda on any significant scale. Instead, it took advantage of the collapse of the Soviet Union when the rapid, capitalist restructuring led to economic chaos and mass poverty. Nato expanded membership, while the United States increased its own clear military superiority in global power projection and weapons’ technologies.
The dangers of a border crisis were clear, as in the Ukraine. The pro-Russian president, Yanukovych, was overthrown in 2014, with support to the opposition from the United States, despite the extremist nationalism of some leading figures. In response, Putin manipulated the genuine fears of the Russian-speaking majority in the Crimea to support annexation or face violent suppression by the new government.[iv]What was an historical border dispute has now become a classic example of major power escalation. The United States and its allies have used annexation to justify the deployment of Nato forces, including US troops, directly on the Russian border, as well at the installation of a new anti-missile system in Romania.
Many people in Russia oppose Putin’s policy, as witnessed by the large demonstration held in Moscow in March 2014 and want a negotiated settlement to the Crimea crisis.[v]But Putin has bolstered his position by projecting himself as a strong, national leader, fighting Nato encirclement and building a nuclear weapons fleet capable of overcoming any US anti-ballistic missile systems. Putin euphemistically describes this further fuelling of the arms race as maintaining the strategic balance. Russia is also taking a more assertive role against the United States in the Middle East, notably to prop up the despicable Assad regimes in Syria under the pretence of fighting the terrorist threat from jihadist groups.
What the United States’ encirclement policy has done is effectively consolidate the authoritarian control of Putin in favour of a capitalist kleptocracy and against the interests of ordinary, working-class Russians. Putin has increased spending on both conventional and nuclear forces, although overall expenditure is still only small in comparison to the United States and its allies, while domestic opposition groups are subject to intimidation as unpatriotic for attempting to offer a genuine, democratic alternative.
A similar dynamic is being played out with China. The Communist leadership presents its attempts to build military bases in the South China Sea as a legitimate and defensive response to the increased US presence in the Pacific, including modernisation of air and naval bases in Okinawa and access to a new, South Korean naval base on Jeju island. Already, there have been a number of minor incidents between US and Chinese naval forces in the South China Sea over a small group of islands where China is building an artificial reef for military facilities.[vi]China’s arms expenditure has grown and although as with Russia, is still relatively small compared to the United States, the clear objective is to create an aircraft-carrier battle fleet capable of challenging the United States in the Pacific.
Again, this US-initiated military escalation has helped bolster a corrupt, authoritarian government run by and for capitalist elites, claiming to protect the national interest against external threat, while suppressing the widespread, anti-government protests and opposition from working-class communities against corruption and environmental degradation.
How will the new arms race map out? The immediate focus is on the Korean peninsula and the ongoing issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. The legacy of the Korean War in the early 1950s, when United States forces destroyed most of North Korea’s towns and cities, conducting a bombing campaign in which millions were killed, is still a strong one for the North Korean leadership. The continued and extensive US military presence on the Korean peninsula is used as legitimation for its own nuclear weapons programme. Both Trump and Kim Jong-un’s rhetoric continues to swing wildly from negotiations to threats of war. In contrast, the majority of ordinary South Koreans want dialogue and de-escalation and it is no surprise that many see Trump as a greater threat than Kim.
But there are also dangers of regional wars that would draw in the major powers. Syria is the most obvious example, following the bombing raids on suspected chemical weapons establishments carried out by US forces, in April 2018, with support from the UK and France. The West has also armed Saudi Arabia in its military operations against the Houthi people in Yemen, effectively a genocidal war through the destruction of basic infrastructure and the resultant disease and famine.[vii]
Even though Saudi Arabia is a brutal, authoritarian regime that has exported an extremist, Wahabi version of Islam around the world, it is seen as a key ally by the United States in the broader regional power struggle against Iran. Predictably, the fundamentalist, religious leadership in Iran uses the threat from the United States and its proxies in the region as legitimation for the suppression of mass popular opposition to its political and economic corruption.
While there are many other potential flashpoints, these are the ones that seem most likely to draw the United States and its allies into direct military action, precipitating the involvement of other major powers. An attack by the United States on North Korea would result in a conventional war in which North Korea targeted the major cities and civil nuclear facilities of South Korea. In the worst-case scenario, millions of people would be killed, and China, probably drawn into the conflict.
Similarly, the crisis in the Middle East could re-ignite the neo-conservative ambition to dismantle the Iranian state. Trump has withdrawn from the nuclear accord signed in 2015 between Iran and the ‘P5+1’ powers of the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and the UK, that allowed for Iran’s restricted nuclear programme under international inspection.[viii]New economic sanctions have been imposed on Iran and, despite the terrible legacy of western intervention in the region, the option of a full-scale invasion and regime-change is still very much on the neo-conservative agenda. Any direct attack on Iran would make war between the United States and Russia inevitable.
From the perspective of working people around the world, the international system represents a form of collective insanity. The ultimate paradox is that we face the real danger of conventional and even nuclear war when there is no existential threat. We are all simply prisoners of a militarist dynamic perpetrated by capitalist, authoritarian regimes in their various configurations, to carve up zones of influence and access to resources for their respective corporate elites.
The spectre of an external threat is used as a means of imposing, further and draconian controls such as mass interception of domestic communications, and to consolidate the military-industrial-complex’s power over the allocation of public funds in favour of the new arms race. Here, the weaponisation of other issues such as terrorism, or external interference with information technology systems, adds further fuel to the manufactured siege mentality and the ever-present danger of potential attack.
The truly terrifying threat to working people all around the world from irreversible climate change is denied the very same resources that are desperately needed to create a post-carbon economy. Instead of a militarist, international system built on the insatiable appetite of capitalism for finite resources, the international working classes could build a post-capitalist economy where essential needs of housing, food and energy are satisfied, while ensuring ecological balance between consumption and the finite resource base. All fossil fuels would be kept in the ground and a massive, public investment programme undertaken in renewable energy and storage technologies, funded by the transfer of industrial and technological resources from military expenditure.
The legacy of opposition to militarism is a strong one. For example, the Non-Aligned Movement was a direct response of countries that rejected alliances with either the United States and the USSR during the Cold War. The main emphasis was on anti-colonialism, particularly the struggle for independence and the control of resources for economic development. But the Movement was also critical of the United Nations, especially the role of the Security Council, and its failure to make real progress on the goal of comprehensive disarmament.[ix]
The international peace movement has a long, historical pedigree and continues to play a significant role, most recently through the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, (ICAN), winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017. The call for nuclear weapons to be declared illegal under international law has garnered considerable support and in July 2017, 122 countries adopted a new treaty banning nuclear weapons.[x]
Domestic opposition to militarism in the United States was reflected in Bernie Sanders’ strong campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Built on grass-roots support, it represented a real challenge to the Republican/Democratic elite consensus on US military supremacy. Public resources were to be focused on an ambitious programme to renew the country’s civil infrastructure, rather than on continued expansion of arms spending. Although ultimately unsuccessful, it has stimulated follow-on initiatives such as the People’s Budget campaign.[xi]Similar grass-roots opposition movements exist in both Russia and China, challenging the endemic corruption of their political and corporate elites, and offering a democratic alternative to authoritarianism and militarism.
Any new working-class internationalist movement that builds on opposition to militarism will need to campaign for a complete overhaul of institutions like the United Nations which is simply not fit for purpose. Its continuation as a creature of the major powers is incompatible with the goals of both conventional and nuclear disarmament. Under a new disarmament and common security architecture, and with real democratic representation, existing treaties would be scrapped and replaced. The discredited Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is an obvious example, since the existing nuclear weapons states have simply used it to legitimise multi-billion dollar modernisation programmes, rather than commit to a timetable for their own nuclear disarmament.
The Security Council would be abolished along with the veto for major powers. Instead, collective decision-making would operate on issues such as peacekeeping and humanitarian aid. If required, for example, to protect minority populations in the face of the threat of violence, then peacekeeping forces will function on a mandate to deploy anywhere in the world, including territory presently occupied by the forces of the major powers as in Crimea and Tibet. Similarly, under the staged disarmament process any attempt to maintain weapons of mass destruction would, in itself, constitute a war crime. Political and military leaderships would be held accountable and liable to arrest and to trial by an international court if they violated disarmament treaties.
The military-industrial complex will respond to working-class internationalism with a massive propaganda and disinformation exercise. Domestic peace movements will be demonised as an active threat to national security, leaving their countries defencelesss against external aggression. But the truth is exactly the opposite. It will take extraordinary courage to argue for disarmament in the face of militarism and war fever.
Perhaps the closest historical analogy is to the years immediately preceding World War One. The international working-class movement attempted to halt the march to war by appealing to the collective interests of working people. Across Europe and the United States, millions came together in demonstrations and mass meetings to advocate disarmament through international solidarity. The militarist response became increasingly repressive and violent, characterising peacemakers as traitors. Jean Jaurės, the French socialist leader and a chief architect of the European peace movement, paid the ultimate price, murdered by a nationalist fanatic shortly before the outbreak of war.[xii]
As then, contemporary, working-class organisations like trade unions, left-wing political parties, and grass-root environmental groups can demonstrate that they are part of a global movement for common security built on an economy owned and controlled by working people, rather than remain prisoners of capitalist elites responsible for irreversible climate change and world war.
It was a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, in 1953 who made a speech condemning military preparations as the full impact of the Cold War became obvious:
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children….This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”[xiii]
Even if the present military escalation does not result in outright war, it will be at the unacceptable cost of building war machines that consume vast public resources and the imposition of ever more draconian political controls. We cannot let the militarists win. Their future is to weaponise everything and demonise everyone. Our future is to build a new internationalism based on peace and common security, and to do it now before it is too late.