by Chuck Spinney
Slightly different versions of this posting have appeared in The American Conservative at this link, on the website of the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity at this link, and on the website of the American Committee for East-West Accord at this link.
President Trump’s plan to escalate efforts in Ballistic Missile Defense, including the introduction of space-based weapons, should not be viewed in isolation.
It comes on top of the Defense Department’s plan to execute an across-the-board modernization of all our nuclear strike forces. It comes on top of the expansion of NATO under three Presidents despite earlier promises (here and here) to the contrary. It comes on top of the unilateral decision by President Bush to withdraw from the ABM treaty in June 2002, on top of President Trump’s threat to withdraw from the INF treaty, and on top of Mr. Trump’s publication of a more aggressive Nuclear Posture Review. To argue that such a massive effort is directed at deterring Iran or North Korea is ludicrous. Russia and China know who these programs and policies are aimed at.
Viewed thru the lens of the precautionary principle: any sensible strategic planner in Russia and China would have no choice but to see these efforts as being a consistent, integrated plan to harden the US nuclear shield while sharpening the US nuclear sword. Since the make up of the offensive modernization program — i.e., the nuclear sword — includes (1) adding precision guidance and upgrading the warhead to the dial-a-yield B-61 gravity bomb, (2) new/upgraded C4ISR systems, (3) a massive modernization of nuclear laboratory infrastructure (4) new family of interoperable nuclear warheads for ballistic and cruise missiles, (5) new ICBMs, (6) new air launched cruise missiles, (7) new bombers, (8) new missile launching submarines, (9) modernized SLBMs, (10) new sea launched cruise missiles, (11) new space-based C4ISR systems, including (12) the possibility of ASAT capabilities, it is quite obvious that Russian and Chinese war planners will have no choice but to make the worst case assumptions about US intentions. Russian and Chinese planners will be forced to assume the US is returning to the thoroughly discredited 1970s-era nuclear war-fighting theory of graduated nuclear escalation via the use of a series limited nuclear options, punctuated perhaps by diplomatic signaling. Application of the precautionary principle by Russian and Chinese nuclear war planners would force them to conclude that the U.S. believes it can fight and win a nuclear war regardless of any US protestations about its sword-shield modernization plan being a defensive upgrade to a nuclear deterrence strategy.
Perhaps more importantly, savvy Russian and Chinese political advisors will understand how the flood of money pouring into these sword/shield modernization efforts will paralyze the patronage-addicted U.S. decision making system. The fact that the multi-billion dollar, failure-prone BMD program continued unabated after the end of the First Cold War illustrates the paralyzing staying power of patronage addiction. Now, the flood of dollars to every congressional district will increase sharply, creating an even more powerful web of political patronage in the form of jobs, corporate profits, and domestic political power. This web will, like its predecessors, lock in the continued funding of these programs for reasons of domestic politics that have nothing to do with the needs of foreign policy — and future political leaders in the United States will be trapped into continuing these programs for the reasons President Eisenhower outlined in his Farewell Address — only this time, our future will be Eisenhower’s nightmare on steroids.
So, even if President Trump has the best of intentions, he and his successors will find it impossible to convince Presidents Putin or Xi, or their successors, that the US political system does not want — or more accurately, does not need — a New Cold War. Given the current chaos in U.S. politics, our adversaries (and friends) may well think hyping the domestic politics of pervasive unreasoning fear by starting and maintaining a New Cold War is the only way the U.S. political elite can bring order to the increasingly corrupt, chaotic, and dysfunctional political system of their own making.
In such circumstances, it is hard to see how Mr Trump could convince Presidents Putin and Xi that he really wants better relations, when his own government is unleashing huge uncontrollable domestic patronage forces that will shape such a US foreign policy for the next 30 to 50 years.