Are the US and Russia Sleepwalking into War?
By Ramesh Thakur
On 3 October, taking another step on the road to a
new cold war, Russia suspended the 16-year bilateral
plutonium disposition agreement with the US. Are
the two countries sleepwalking into a war that could
cross the nuclear threshold — remembering that
those sleepwalking are unaware of it at the time?
One possible pathway to slide into war would be to act on the growing
chorus of calls in the Washington Beltway for a no-fly-zone over
Syria. In a bon mot often misattributed to Mark Twain that is so good
it deserves to be true, God is said to have created war so Americans
could learn geography. Russia–US tensions are rising again and could
boil over if Hillary Clinton becomes president, which seems all but
The threat of war comes less from Russian revanchist or imperial
ambitions and more from the US insistence that no other power must
have the economic resilience and military capability to resist
Washington’s will, anywhere. Rooted in the triumphalism of US
supremacy in the post-Cold War unipolar moment, this is both
unsustainable and increasingly risky as US primacy wanes against the
steady accretion of economic, military and diplomatic power by China
and Russia’s recovery. The fierce US resistance of the inexorable tide
of history also spells dangers for Australia.
History of US Use of Force and Spread of
The US has become an increasingly war-prone country. According to a
Congressional Research Service report of October 7, the US used force
overseas 215 times from 1798 to 1989, or 1.1 times per year on
average. From 1991 to 2015 — the period since the end of the Cold War
— it has deployed force abroad on 160 occasions, for an annual average
of 6.4. This might explain why a 2013 WIN/Gallup poll of opinion in 65
countries found the world’s biggest threat to world peace was believed
to be the US (24%), followed by Pakistan, China, North Korea, Israel
and Iran (between 5-8% each).
It is worth looking at a map of the world and pondering on the number
of US military bases and overseas troops in locations far removed from
the homeland, compared to Russian and Chinese foreign military
deployments (excluding UN peacekeeping operations). The US military is
deeply entrenched in a global archipelago of numerous bases spread
across almost 40 countries. The exact number is not easy to ascertain.
In 2010 the Department of Defense reported a total of 662 US military
bases in 38 countries. According to investigative reporter Nick Turse,
the number varies from 460 to over 1000.
Exhibits A and B in the case against Russia are its aggression in
Ukraine and bombings in Syria. In the context of the 1982 Argentine
invasion of the Falkland Islands, former US Secretary of State Henry
Kissinger warned that no great power retreats forever. The hostile US
policy towards Russia since the 1990s has ignored this key canon of
great power relations.
Discussion of what Graham Alison calls the Thucydides trap has become
fashionable in foreign policy circles. This is the sober reminder that
of 16 cases of power transitions in the last 500 years, 12 resulted in
warfare. This discussion has largely focused on China.
Most analysts have forgotten the rarity of how the Cold War ended in
1989–90. The Soviet Union, which still retained nuclear deterrent
forces but would cease to exist in December 1991, never admitted it
had been defeated, and President George H. W. Bush was careful not to
claim victory. Others were not so restrained.
As the successor state, Russia acquiesced in the terms of a new world
order and agreed to co-operate with the West to help stabilise
post-Cold War Europe. Since then the West has treated Russia with
contempt born of victor’s arrogance. The relentless eastward expansion
of NATO into parts of the former Soviet empire broke US promises made
at Malta on the basis of which Moscow had peacefully withdrawn Soviet
troops from Eastern Europe, permitted Germany’s reunification and
accepted united Germany as a member of NATO — the deep historical
scars of French and German invasions of Russia notwithstanding.
The West rubbed Russia’s nose repeatedly in the dirt of its historic
Cold War defeat, disdainful of its interests and complaints. Russia
was looted by oligarchs abetted by US crony capitalists, millions of
ethnic Russians were abandoned and relegated to second class status in
former Soviet republics, and Russian voice, vote and interests were
repeatedly brushed aside.
In Ukraine in 2014 the West supported street mobs who ousted the
elected pro-Russian president and installed a pro-Western government.
Yet the West seemed surprised that a resentful Russia carried a
grievance and reacted like a great power when a coup was engineered in
its front garden. It was payback time. When Moscow responded along
predictable lines given the history and geopolitics of the region and
re-absorbed Crimea, the West, having played hardball and lost, threw a
Both President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrovwere
quick to recall NATO actions in helping detach Kosovo from Serbia in
1999. It is not at all hard to imagine hardline US reactions to
equivalent China- or Russia-fomented instability, followed by the
installation of anti-American regimes, in Canada and Mexico. All great
powers, the US included, have strategic interests and pursue imperial
not ethical foreign policies.
The dismissive treatment of Russia since the end of the Cold War in
Europe left the US ill-prepared for dealing with the rise of China in
the Pacific. Historically, Washington has neither treated another
country as an equal nor confronted a multidimensional, sophisticated
and comprehensive national power like China. As China fills out as a
major power, uncontested US primacy is simply not sustainable. China
has been a continental power but now its maritime interests and
activities are growing. Its expanding long-range strike and air and
naval power projection capabilities pose a potential threat to the era
of regional stability underwritten by US primacy. Its growing blue
water navy and long-range missiles could also put Australia within
range of China’s military.
In Chinese eyes Australia appears in response to have joined the US in
a de facto containment strategy, as indicated by public statements in
both capitals, the US pivot to Asia, the decision to station a
contingent of US marines at Darwin and the build-up of military links.
What Americans portray as ‘rebalancing’ can be (mis)read as
‘counterbalancing’ by the Chinese, who will respond accordingly.
A Clinton Administration and the
According to critics, under the influence of the military-industrial
complex the US military is in more places than it should be, the
country makes more weapons than it needs, and it sells more weapons
than is prudent. It has been engaged in a seemingly permanent war
since 2001 and continually bombs multiple countries simultaneously. A
retired US ambassador draws a link between the prevalence of violence
at home and the frequent resort to the use of force overseas: ‘we are
a killer nation, at home and abroad’.
While Americans see their policy as springing from universal idealism,
many others perceive it as rooted in sanctimonious arrogance. As with
national and global surveillance, Americans have fallen into the trap
of interfering anywhere and everywhere not because it is right in
principle or serves a coherent strategic purpose, but because they
can, insensitive and indifferent to how threatening or offensive their
actions are to others.
Even President Barack Obama complained that the default Washington
foreign-policy establishment ‘playbook’ is militarised responses to
foreign policy crises. Clinton is very much a part of that Washington
elite’s groupthink consensus. As Secretary of State, she was
consistently more hawkish than Obama so it is no surprise that a long
list of high-profile neocons have pledged to vote for her rather than
the relatively isolationist Donald Trump. There has been some worrying
speculation that one candidate for National Security Adviser or even
Secretary of State in a Clinton administration would be Victoria
Nuland, the point person in charge of Ukraine policy in the US State
Department who notoriously said to the US ambassador in Kiev ‘F..k the
EU‘ in a phone conversation in February 2014. She used to be deputy
national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney in the Bush
administration and is married to the prominent neoconservative
intellectual Robert Kagan.
Ironically, Clinton has gained traction in the campaign by stoking
anxieties over the erratic and temperamentally volatile Trump’s finger
on the nuclear button. Clinton’s response to the spate of damning
hacked emails published by WikiLeaks has been to distract attention
from her sins to unproven allegations of Russia interfering in
domestic US elections (which Washington of course would never do
anywhere) and attack Trump’s cosiness with Putin, thus heightening
US–Russian tensions still more. The optimistic thought is that given
her policy smarts and extensive experience, once Clinton has achieved
her presidential ambition she will rise above her past limitations and
prove a wise global stateswoman.
Implications for Australia
Australia’s alliance with the US continues to shape its China policy
and its recent hard line against Russia has been framed by an airplane
tragedy. Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down on 17 July 2014
near Donetsk, Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers and crew, including
several Australians. The government’s tough rhetoric against Moscow
for this alleged criminal act played well in domestic Australian
politics. But the loss of MH17 was not the first case of a civilian
airliner being shot down. The best known comparable tragedy in which
the US military was directly culpable (unlike MH17, where the Russian
military is alleged to be indirectly complicit for supplying the
rebels who did the shooting with the lethal arms) is the shooting down
by USS Vincennes of Iran Air flight 655 on 3 July 1988 as it flew a
scheduled daily route from Tehran to Dubai. The ship’s captain was
neither rebuked nor punished but awarded a medal.
Historical amnesia might also explain the puzzle of US policy towards
Russia. America provided largely enlightened global leadership for
several decades after the Second World War and constructed the liberal
international order we live in today. The world is better for the
manner in which the Cold War was fought and which side won; today’s
world would have been a much harsher jungle for all countries
otherwise. That said, victory produced triumphalism and a belief in
American exceptionalism whereby international law and global norms
applied only to others. US double standards extend across a broad
front in world affairs.
Against this larger geopolitical backdrop, a whole generation of
American politicians and officials has grown up treating Russia as a
defeated, has-been power whose interests can be brushed aside. Several
hard-headed realists with experience and knowledge of how relations
with Moscow were managed peacefully through the Cold War tension and
crises have expressed uneasiness at the loss of institutional memory
but seem to lack a constituency inside the current policymakers in
either major party.
Led by the US, the West arrogated the right to be the arbiter of
permissible conduct for itself and for others. As that world fades
into the sunset the West is losing the monopoly on writing and
policing global rules, yet behaves on occasion as if it is in denial
of the loss of unchallengeable power. The danger of an unwanted and
destructive war lies both in this insistence on continued US
exceptionalism and self-belief in Western virtue, and in belligerent
action by Russia and China.
In a parallel development, where formerly Australia’s US alliance
guaranteed our security, today it can also multiply threats to our
security. This does not mean Australia has to shed its alliance. It
does mean Australia must outgrow the psychology of client dependency
and decide on issues of war and peace in different theatres through an
exercise of independent judgment. Canada’s example vis-à-vis the Iraq
war shows that any resulting turbulence in relations with Washington
will be minor and temporary.Φ
Ramesh Thakur, a former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General, is
professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National
University. (Tony Kevin assisted me in comments on this article.)