The news and editorial pages have forgotten the failed wars of the recent past, and are already pursuing new confrontations for the United States. In the past week, the New York Times argued that President Joe Biden’s handling of Ukraine is actually a “wider test of U.S. credibility abroad.” The Washington Post, which has become a voice for militarism, believes it is essential to “challenge the authoritarianism” of Russia, and supports a “generational investment” in economic and military support for Ukraine. And now the most authoritative news weekly in the English language, The Economist, has questioned America’s resolve in a cover story headlined “What would American fight for.”
For its part, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a $768 billion defense bill that exceeded the requests of both Biden’s White House and the Pentagon. The bill included significant increases for countering China; bolstering Ukraine; and modernizing strategic nuclear forces, including hundreds of billions of dollars for replacing the silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles that mar the landscape of the American West.
If the United States was concerned with nuclear stability and safety, it would abandon all silo-based missiles, which are the most vulnerable. Significant reductions of nuclear forces, moreover, would increase U.S. national security; contribute to the lessening of an arms race with Russia and China; and fulfill our treaty obligations to the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, which has been observed in the breach.
The opinion pages of the Washington Post are particularly egregious with regard to confronting Russia and China over Ukraine and Taiwan, respectively. The Post has manufactured a case for a strategic partnership with Ukraine by arguing that the United States and Ukraine “share ideology and long-term geopolitical interests;” that a prosperous Ukraine would make Russian authoritarianism “unviable;” and that closer bilateral relations with Ukraine would “upend Russia’s irredentist aspirations for empire.” This is an absurdist argument.
There is a similar argument being made for defending Taiwan, which was described in recent congressional testimony by Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner as a “strategic asset.” The Post and the Times argue that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese strongman Xi Jinping have become emboldened and increasingly assertive because of the U.S. failure to respond to Russia’s seizure of Crimea and China’s destruction of the democracy movement in Hong Kong.
The current crisis over Ukraine could be easily defused if the United States would honor its agreement from 1990. The United States said that it would not “leap frog” over a reunified Germany if the Soviets withdrew their 380,000 forces from East Germany and East Europe. In preparing a political biography of Eduard Shevardnadze, my interviews with former Secretary of State James Baker and Shevardnadze confirmed that Baker used the term “leap frog” with his Soviet counterpart. Former President George H.W. Bush used similar terminology in his private discussions with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Russian officials have acknowledged that Moscow agreed to the reunification of Germany in return for the U.S. commitment not to station NATO troops east of the Oder-Neisse Line, which separated East Germany and Poland.
The commitment to forswear the stationing of Western forces in East Europe was never part of any written agreement that I’m aware of, but Putin reasonably believes that a pledge was made at the highest levels of the U.S. government and then broken by a succession of U.S. presidents starting with Bill Clinton. The U.S. explanation that NATO “rotates” troops through East Europe rather than “stations” troops there is pure sophistry.
The United States must find a way to address reasonable and legitimate Russian concerns about Ukraine falling under a NATO security guaranty. We might try putting ourselves in Putin’s shoes. How would we react if Russia were to station its military in Canada or Mexico? Remember our reaction to the Soviet deployment of missiles in Cuba. Are we the only nation in the world that claims fealty to a Monroe Doctrine?
The Taiwan issue is more difficult to assess, but Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden have unnecessarily provoked Beijing by increasing official contacts with Taiwan and, in Biden’s case, inviting the Taiwanese representative in Washington to his January inauguration. Richard Haass, the president of the Council of Foreign Relations, favors increased military funding for Taiwan even at the expense of cutting back on resources devoted to Europe and the Middle East. Haass adds a bizarre return to the ill-fated domino theory of the Vietnam era, arguing that a successful Chinese military move in Taiwan would open the door to a Chinese threat to Guam and even Hawaii! The congressional testimony of senior military officers include specific predictions of a future confrontation with China.
A former student of mine at the National War College, James Stavridis, who became a four-star admiral and served as the supreme allied commander at NATO, is regularly cited in the Post and the Times with accusations of U.S. “appeasement” toward Russia and China. More recently, he added the argument that China will be “watching U.S. support to Ukraine, and it will inform their calculus regarding Taiwan.”
There is rarely discussion of the commonality in U.S. positions vis-a-vis Russia and China that would allow for a significant strategic dialogue. The three leading powers agree on the importance of non-proliferation as well as the need to counter international terrorism. The U.S. and China want to check tensions on the Korean peninsula; both Russia and China signed the Iran nuclear accord. Biden’s national security team is lagging in not beginning a dialogue that would include confidence building measures in East Europe and East Asia. The covid and climate wars cannot be fought without Russia and China.
For far too long, the United States has been wasting precious budgetary resources on old-fashioned military policies that have brought no advantages to the American people. Our national security policies have been ineffectual and irrelevant to the genuine threats we face today. These threats do not emanate from Russia or China. Nevertheless, more than 60 percent of U.S. discretionary spending is devoted to defense.
Rather, the real threats stem from an underfunded public health system; a cyber world that is out of control; crumbling infrastructure; and the challenges posed by climate change. The United States has been profligate, ignoring real enemies, particularly the climate catastrophe that threatens the entire global community. President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us 60 years ago that military demands on U.S. spending would become a “cross of iron” that would limit spending on domestic needs.