L’appel du Vide

L’appel du vide. “Call of the void.” The common man or woman might experience it as the urge to veer off the road or hop off a cliff. It’s a fleeting, transitive moment of sudden insanity. The sane mind summons the call with a spark of morbid curiosity and dismisses it just as easily.

Do world leaders ever suffer from this same lapse of reason? Does the leader of a superpower ever get a sudden inspiration to launch nukes and start World War III? Yes, I suppose so, but I don’t imagine they entertain the ideas for much longer. This isn’t to say that WWIII isn’t possible, or that nation-states don’t prepare for it-I am simply saying that WWIII is not a viable policy choice, especially because states prepare for it.

Increasingly though the media would have us believe that this is not the case. Various news channels argue that Vladimir Putin is preparing for war. Quite frankly, there are some scary signs. Putin has given unfaltering support to Assad in Syria where Russia and America are increasingly at loggerheads. Russia is apparently escalating the situation by moving a fleet into the Mediterranean, although the fact that Russia has halted its campaign for the time being may come as a relief. Still, there are other acts as well, such as the stationing of short range missiles in Kaliningrad, a sizable exclave just north of Poland. Putin is increasingly rattling the nuclear sabre.

But the idea that all of this could signal future aggression on the part of Russia is simply implausible for a rather important reason: namely that WWIII would likely be a suicidal venture. Unfortunately, people just don’t seem to pick up on this fact. There is a false perception in the media, the Pentagon, and beyond that there is such a thing as limited war. The idea is that it is possible for two superpowers to restrict themselves to using only a few nukes while relying primarily on conventional power.  Different agents use this falsehood to justify various ends: the media likes to drum up fear, the Pentagon wants to justify its budgets, the President wants to seem tough, and, most importantly, Russia wants to try and cultivate the perception that nukes are on the table as an option.

This strategy isn’t new; Nixon tried to convince North Vietnam that he was ready to nuke Hanoi as part of his “madman theory.” Why else would the U.S. have declared DEFCON 2 before the Gulf War if not to put the fear of the bomb into Saddam? In these circumstances this just might work. A nuclear power can afford to blackmail a non-nuclear power because the latter party has no recourse. The nuclear party could, conceivably, launch a one-sided nuclear war and win with no losses: the question simply becomes “how desperate does the nuclear power have to be to consider this option.” The intent of such a strategy is to have a chilling effect on the other side’s policy, but history has shown that this seldom works. N. Vietnam didn’t seem to care much at any rate.

And if a non-nuclear power wouldn’t care, then why would another nuclear power care? Threatening to use nukes against another nuclear power is the equivalent of contemplating suicide, only on a vastly larger scale. No matter how desperate either side might get, it is better to remain desperate and alive than risk annihilation.

Suffice it to say, the nuclear alarmism of the media is bogus. Even if relations are completely sour, even if Syria is being bombed into oblivion, even if Russia remains in control of Crimea, I don’t think that there is any possibility of a new World War breaking out. The risks are simply too great. Russia is just bluffing in the great international poker game, using its nukes as chips. Far from being an irrational, unpredictable foe, Russia is taking carefully calculated risks.

Recent statements by Gorbachev reveal that the real danger in these conditions is not that Russia is willing to use nukes but rather than Russia is willing to use nukes as a bargaining chip. Russia has de-prioritized nuclear disarmament, in the process undoing a great deal of Gorbachev’s legacy and the lengthy status quo of mutual disarmament embodied in the so-called New START initiative. By reviving and updating strategic nuclear forces, Russia is beginning a new trend that other great powers will surely follow. It seems that nuclear weapons will stay with us for a little longer now…

But why even bother? What are Russia’s ultimate aims. Russia of course wants to impress people at home and intimidate people abroad. Russia remains skilled at taking advantage of organized chaos and playing out events for its benefit as it seeks normalized relations with the West and stability for Assad.

But I think the main reason for so much recent activity is something far more sinister, and silly: Russia wants Trump to win. A Clinton victory on November 8th (which seems increasingly likely) would mean continued sanctions, neo-liberal policy, and marginalization for Russia. Trump, on the other hand, has stated that he would try to get along well with Putin and place a priority on cooperation against terrorism (something the Kremlin has been wanting for years now as a way to brush over that whole Crimea thing). There are allegations, probably well-founded, that Russia is involved in leaks and hacks aimed at smearing Hillary in order to keep her from the White House. Obviously this does not sit well with Washington and there is growing talk of a retaliatory cyberattack against Russia being readied.

Cyberwarfare is a totally new front. Since they don’t necessarily result in collateral damage or casualties, there is far less stigma in using a cyberattack. Who knows how this might end up: undoubtedly it will just be a series of tit-for-tat assaults with a gradual escalation. I don’t think that cyberwarfare will lead to any actual, physical conflict. Actually I think it is possible that cyberattacks may even be a healthy outlet for nation-states to release aggression. They may ultimately result in a decline in tensions once states reach the point where the costs of successive attacks outweigh any possible, ephemeral gains.

That being said, the fact that Russia is so brazenly attempting to influence the American election is deeply troubling. We may launch a cyberattack against Russia, but they can do far more damage to our elections than we can do to theirs since ours are (arguably) more free, fair, and open. I suppose we could reveal something aimed at casting a shadow on Putin or his cronies, but Putin tends to be skilled at acting through proxies and enjoys a teflon popularity among his people so pinning him down wouldn’t be feasible.

Fortunately the actual damage done by Russian hacks are negligible. Leaked information on Hillary have done some damage to her. I, at the very least, decided to support alternative candidates after a Russian leak revealed that the Democratic Party had effectively arranged for Bernie’s defeat. But ultimately good old fashion mudslinging does more damage. The leaks of audiotape revealing Trump’s creepy, womanizing tendencies by Hillary did far more damage to him than Russia could hope to do in a million years. Russian leaders like Putin and Zhirinovsky, and maybe even Russian citizens may prefer Trump to Hillary, but I think their attempts to manipulate public opinion here in America will most likely fall on deaf ears. Trump’s support base is built heavily on nativism, appealing more to voters caring about domestic issues than international policy. Many of his voters are people who thought that Obama was soft on Russia.

Sadly I agree more with Trump’s policy towards Russia than Hillary’s. Even if World War III is unlikely to the point of impossibility I would hardly advise backing Russia into a corner anymore. We’re in a position of strength, and we have been for some time. By directly confronting Russia with diplomacy we may be able to thaw relations. Unfortunately my relationship with Donald J. Trump ends here, and I have nothing else in common with his platform.

By my estimates Clinton will win. I predicted this back in 2015. This just means more of the same-a status quo. Same old sanctions, same mistrust, same Russian aggression. Things will stay as they are, boring and “normal,” and minds will start to wander. Seems like we are destined to experience l’appel du vide for some time longer.


Red Armies and Paper Tigers: Unpacking Andrew Cockburn’s “The Threat”

I love old books, and not just for that quaint, musty smell of vanilla and cigarettes that accompanies them; old books are literally time machines, transporting us into earlier contexts and perspectives. Once the dust of history has settled we can fairly analyze them. How well has the book aged? Was it accurate at the time? Is it relevant in the present? What insights into the future can it give us?

Today we’re going back in time to 1983.  Americans look back on the 80s with tremendous nostalgia. The malaise of Vietnam had worn off, the hazy 70s were behind us, and voters threw their bipartisan approval behind the stone-faced Reagan. Technology and hair size were on the rise. Meanwhile on the other side of the Iron Curtain the Soviet Union was in decay. Misguided spending and the incredible lethargy of Brezhnev and his cadres had led to total stagnation.

The writing was on the wall, although this fact was obscured by a rise in tensions. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan sent red flags to the U.S., leading to a vast increase in defense spending. The arms race showed no signed of stopping, and the Europeans trapped between the two superpowers were holding their breath as new medium range missiles were being deployed on their soil. The mood was tense, and the spectre of nuclear war was lingering in the background. Two great armies warily eyed each other, waiting for the order.

Given this background, you can imagine what I expected when I picked up this book at a thrift store.

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I anticipated a gloom-and-doom inflation of the Soviet threat. Thankfully, Andrew Cockburn pleasantly defied all expectations, masterfully employing evidence to not only deflate the Soviet bear but also draw the entire military industrial complex into doubt.

A few words on Andrew Cockburn. From what I gather he is an Irish expat living here in the United States. Cockburn has spent much of his career writing about military and security establishments. Suffice it to say that he is not a friend of militarism or the military industrial complex; he is a tenacious skeptic of official claims and public perceptions. His investigations have followed U.S. foreign policy trends, and he seems to have accommodated well to the fall of the U.S.S.R. by switching to the War on Terror and U.S. hegemony. His writing style varies from straightforward and technical to clever and sometimes even brilliantly descriptive, and he knows exactly when to adjust his style.

Cockburn soundly reveals in the Threat that the Soviet armed forces of the early 1980s were a shambling corpse. Far from Reagan’s “Evil Empire,” the Soviets were almost laughably incompetent and hapless at all levels. Cockburn organizes his book well, starting by summarizing the perceptions both superpowers had of each other and then progressing into an analyses of the individual branches of the Soviet military.

The military of the U.S.S.R. had five branches: the Red Army, the Navy, the Air Force, Air Defense, and Strategic Missile Forces. Each branch is generally staffed by a mandatory draft of young men (who had to serve 2 years in the armed forces, or 3 years if they were in the Navy), who were supplemented by officers. While the U.S.S.R. had an apparent numerical edge, Cockburn shows how these advantages were undercut by the total lack of morale and unity among men. Officers had difficulty in motivating forces, and their desire to earn benefits and promotion led them to ignore or cover up issues. Cockburn smashes the myth that the Soviet Armed Forces were merely a puppet of the Party. The Soviet military was an active player in politics, using a control of information and close ties to leaders to accomplish goals. The Soviet military is not unlike the military industrial complex (MIC) that Ike warned us all about.

Cockburn draws numerous parallels between the Soviet and American military bureaucracies, claiming that both are plagued with corruption, ambition, and the extreme inefficiency that naturally follows bureaucracy. These parallels ultimately feed into his broader thesis, where he accuses both sides of “threat inflation.” The Soviets, he writes, intentionally cultivated deception and mystery in order to force opponents to overestimate their capabilities. This fear of inadequacy (the security dilemma for you neorealists) led to the U.S. bulking up their forces, which in turn prompted the Soviets to made tangible updates to their own military forces (often following the example set by the U.S.). What followed was an arms race mirroring the one that preceded World War I. Ultimately the military industrial complexes of both superpowers assumed the worst about each other and manipulated public fears and policy makers in order to get the requisite resources and deference they wanted. Along the way Cockburn believes that military efficiency was degrading, with each side increasingly relying on unreliable and untested advance technology, which seemed like the logical solution to meeting the threat posed by the other side.

In terms of the individual military branches, the Soviets were clearly lacking. The legendary armour that beat the Nazi machine is plagued by faulty engines and a wide swath of other technical and training issues. Brezhnev’s vast pet project, the Soviet Navy, was mostly just for show. Soviet air power suffered from the same issues of reliability and range. I almost feel like Cockburn is too skeptical at times; he even finds fault with the legendary Mi-24 “Hind” gunships that were made famous by the Soviet-Afghan war. Still I have to commend his approach, he often focuses strictly on details rather than conjecturing about World War III, and the technical issues alone (which exist for both U.S. and U.S.S.R.) are startling. Basically the only weapon systems he does not find fault with are the ever reliable AK-47, the classic T-34, and the user-friendly RPG.

Cockburn’s book reaches full stride in the section on nuclear forces, and he finds tremendous fault with the idea held in both East and West that nuclear war could be won. Nuclear weapons more or less invalidate all other weapons or competition between East and West, although even the assured destruction wrought by ICBMs is up to some debate. Ultimately the uncertainty of how a nuclear war would progress and the imperfect ability of each side to destroy the other’s second strike capacity are enough to ensure continued reliance and expenditure on weapons. It was especially interesting to read the parts dealing with how the Soviets prepped their citizens for doomsday: they seemed to share the dark humour held by many Americans.

Cockburn draws upon a wide swath of sources to reinforce his argument. He relies upon official public statements, interviews with military men and Soviet expats, and Soviet papers such as the official publication of the Soviet armed forces, Red Star. Ultimately I would say that his research is solid, and his conclusions and extrapolations were more or less confirmed once the U.S.S.R. actually fell and their records became available. There are still some inaccuracies to be sure. The Soviet expats obviously left the U.S.S.R. for a reason and are liable to carry bias. The most glaring flaw I found in the book was the claim that Mikhail Kalashnikov died in 1972 (he actually made it to 2013). These seem more like issues with editing and fact checking than anything else, and given the veil of secrecy under which militaries and Communist bureaucracies operate this is no easy task to begin with.

The covers of my copy have something scrawled on them; something about the book being out of date since 1991. I would have to disagree, I think the Threat stands the test of time as a great look at the Soviet and American militaries at a key time. Furthermore, I think the book has caught its second wind with the revival of Russia in recent years. The American military machine (and the Russian one for that matter) are both still in tact, still using their standard ploys to manipulate public opinion and secure a continued role in politics. The American MIC has only grown in size and proportion since finding hegemony and the War on Terror, and their continues to be an inflation of the Russia threat. Politicians here still treat Putin like Hitler for annexing Crimea or taking action in Syria and they try to predict future Russian aggression in the Baltic states. Sometimes they even read Russian tests of missiles as a sign that a nuclear strike is possible: the myth of limited nuclear war is still alive. In many ways it is still business as usual, we even see newfound alarmism about Russian capabilities as Putin plots a course of military updates. The T-14 Armata, a new tank for the cyber age, was rolled out on parade just last year, and nearly all arms of the Armed Forces are up for an upgrade. Still, the harrowing truth is that Russia is under immense economic pressure; spending more on the military at the expense of other areas would be repeating the Soviet mistake. Likewise, is it possible that Russia could have possibly updated its forces and overcome its historic deficiencies? Is the Armata really a supertank?

The book raises some questions as well about the realm of cybersecurity. With apparent Russian hacking aimed at impacting the U.S. election, cyberwarfare looks like the latest and most dire front. The line between hacking and war is still blurry, and this is shaping up to be the next great arms race. There is constant talk of investing in our cybersecurity, and there are even talks of launching cyberattacks of our own (we already retaliated against N. Korea after the Sony incident). Is this worthy or just another example of threat inflation? We will see…

As an aside I should also say that the book appeared to me in terms of ideology and methodology as well. In my own personal studies I am interested in both neorealist and constructivist theories and how they interact. Neorealism dictates that conflict is an inevitable product of international anarchy. Constructivism states that what actually matters is identity forming and interaction between states, with anything being possible. I lean more towards constructivism, but I personally am fascinated by the concept that free social interactions (of the kind constructivism is based on) can lead to realist assumptions. Cockburn explains threat inflation and the security dilemma as a product of perception and uncertainty, so his book entertained the ideological intersections I am interested it.

Andrew Cockburn’s tireless criticism and well grounded cynicism are contagious, and I will certainly be looking into his modern works.