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Cold War

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No New Cold War

“The world is on the brink of a new Cold War. Some say that it has already begun,” said Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union and the man who inadvertently administered a mercy killing to Communism in Europe. He’s 83 years old, he played a leading role in ending the last Cold War, and he’s practically a secular saint. Surely he knows what he’s talking about.

No he doesn’t. Not only has this new Cold War not begun already, but it’s hard to see how you could get it going even if you tried. The raw material for such an enterprise is simply unavailable. You can summon the ghosts of history all you want, but they are dead and they can’t hear you.

Gorbachev was speaking in Berlin, now once again the capital of a united Germany, on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even he would agree that it turned out to be, on balance, a Good Thing, but he is a great deal more ambivalent about the collapse of European Communism and the dismantling of the Soviet Union.

His original goal, and his hope right down to the end in 1991, was to save Communism by reforming it, not to bury it. He also believed, or at least hoped, that if he could make Communist rule “democratic” and user-friendly, he could save the Soviet Union as well. But the Soviet Union was just the old Russian empire in new clothes.

Gorbachev was and is a romantic, and he undoubtedly agrees with his rather less cuddly successor as president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” So of course he ends up defending Putin’s actions and blaming the United States and NATO for this alleged drift into a new Cold War.

It’s all nonsense. Nothing could have saved the old Soviet Union. It was the last of the European empires to fall, mainly because it was land-based rather than sea-based, but only half its population was Russian. When it finally dissolved, fifteen different nations emerged from the wreckage, and its collapse was no greater a loss to civilisation than the fall of the British or French empires.

And the main reason you can’t have a new Cold War is precisely because the  “evil empire” (as Ronald Reagan famously called the Soviet Union) longer exists. There is only Russia, a largely de-industrialised country that is run by a kleptocratic elite and makes its living by exporting oil and gas.

Russia has only 140 million people (less than half the United States, less than a third of the European Union), and its armies are no longer based around Berlin and all through eastern Europe. They are 750 km (500 mi.) further east, guarding Russia’s own frontiers. They occasionally grab a bit of territory that isn’t covered by a NATO guarantee (Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Crimea, Luhansk, Donestk), but they dare not go any further.

So you could get a really unpleasant NATO-Russian confrontation out of this for a while (although it hasn’t happened yet), but not a real Cold War in the old globe-spanning style. Russia just couldn’t hold up its end of it. As for World War Three, don’t worry. Putin cares a lot about saving face, but not that much.

Which leaves the question: who is to blame for this regrettable hostility between Russia and the Western powers? The West, in Gorbachev’s view. In fact, he had a whole list of complaints about Western threats, crimes and betrayals.

NATO broke its promise and let all the Eastern European countries that had been Soviet satellites during the Cold War join NATO. It let Kosovo declare its independence from Russia’s traditional friend, Serbia. It launched wars of “regime change” in the Middle East (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya) that Moscow disapproved of. It even planned a missile defence system that allegedly threatened Russia’s nuclear deterrent (if you could believe that it would work).

Diddums. Yes, Russia has been invaded a lot in its history, but the license to be paranoid expires after fifty years. Of course the Eastern European countries all clamoured to join NATO; they’re still terrified of Russia. The Western great powers do lots of stupid stuff and some seriously bad stuff, and Russia has also done a fair amount of both in the past decade and a half under Putin.

The job of diplomats, and of leaders in particular, is to avoid the really stupid and dangerous stuff, and keep the rest to a minimum. Barack Obama has been quite good at that, as has German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Putin used to be good at it, but is not so good now, perhaps because he has been in power too long. His military interventions in Ukraine have been alarmingly rash.

But nobody is going to go to war with Russia over Ukraine. The Ukrainians were told years ago that they couldn’t shelter under NATO’s security blanket, and they have chosen to defy Moscow anyway. They may pay a high price for that, and the Western alliance’s relations with Russia may go into the deep freeze for the remainder of Putin’s reign. But it will be just a little local difficulty, not a huge event that defines an entire era.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 9 and 13. (“His original…clothes”; “So…much”; and “The job…rash”)

Ukraine: Putin’s Choice

Crimea is going to be part of Russia, and there is nothing anybody else can do about it. The petty sanctions that the United States and the European Union are currently imposing have been discounted in advance by Moscow, and even much more serious sanctions would not move it to reconsider its actions. But Vladimir Putin still has to decide what he does next.

 One option, of course, is to do nothing more. He has his little local triumph in Crimea, which is of considerable emotional value to most Russians, and he has erased the loss of face he suffered when he mishandled the crisis in Kyiv so badly. If he just stops now, those sanctions will be quietly removed in a year or two, and it will be business as usual between Moscow and the West.

If it’s that easy to get past the present difficulties in Moscow’s relations with the U.S. and the EU, why would Putin consider doing anything else? Because he may genuinely believe that he is the victim of a Western political offensive in Eastern Europe.

Paranoids sometimes have real enemies. NATO’s behaviour since the collapse of the Soviet Union, viewed from Moscow, has been treacherous and aggressive, and it doesn’t require a huge leap of the imagination to see the European Union’s recent policy in Ukraine as a continuation of that policy.

After non-violent revolutions swept the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe from power in 1989, the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, made a historic deal with U.S. president George H.W. Bush. It was unquestionably the most important diplomatic agreement of the late 20th century.

Gorbachev agreed to bring all the Soviet garrisons home from the former satellites, and even to allow the reunification of Germany—a very difficult concession when the generation of Russians that had suffered so greatly at Germany’s hands was still alive.

In return, the elder President Bush promised that the countries that had previously served the Soviet Union as a buffer zone between it and Germany—Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria – would not be swept up into an expanding NATO. They would be free, but NATO’s tanks and aircraft would not move a 1,000 kilometres to Moscow.

It was a wise deal between two men who understood the burden of history, but they were both gone from power by the end of 1992—and Gorbachev had neglected to get the promise written into a binding treaty. So it was broken, and all those countries were in NATO by 2004—together with three other countries, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, that had actually been part of the Soviet Union itself.

NATO’s eastern frontier is now only 120 kilometres from Russia’s second city, St. Petersburg. The Russians were burned again when NATO encouraged the secession of Kosovo from Serbia (a handy precedent for Crimea’s secession from Ukraine), and once more when NATO got Moscow’s agreement to an emergency military intervention in Libya to stop a massacre, and expanded it into a campaign to overthrow the ruler, Moammar Gadhafi.

To Russian eyes, what has been happening in Ukraine is more of the same. If Putin believes that, then he thinks he is already in a new Cold War, and he might as well go ahead and improve his position for the coming struggle as much as possible. Specifically, he should grab as much of Ukraine as he can, because otherwise the western part will be turned into a NATO base to be used against him.

Crimea is irrelevant in this context: the Russian naval bases there are nostalgic relics from another era, of no real strategic value in the 21st century. What Putin does need, if another Cold War is coming, is control of the parts of Ukraine where Russian speakers are a majority or nearly so: not just the east, but also the Black Sea coast. But he shouldn’t occupy western Ukraine, because he would face a prolonged guerilla war if he did.

This is all extremely paranoid thinking, and perhaps it never passes through Putin’s mind at all. But if it does, then he knows that he has just over two months to make up his mind.

If Putin allows Ukraine to hold the scheduled national election on May 25, then even the preposterous pretext he has been using for the past month to justify his meddling—that he is intervening to protect Russian-speakers from a “fascist junta” in Kiev—will vanish. So we should know fairly soon which way he is going to jump.

My money says that Putin will stop with Crimea, because he’s not that paranoid, and because he understands how weak Russia is economically and how quickly it would lose a new Cold War. He has already saved his face; why run further risks? But I have been wrong in the past, once or twice.

The Millennium Goals

14 September 2010

The Millennium Goals

By Gwynne Dyer

“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.” It may have been Ella Fitzgerald who first said that, or maybe it was Sophie Tucker. Doesn’t matter. It’s true, other things being equal – but “other things” are not equal.

On 20-22 September, while the United Nations General Assembly is holding its annual meeting in New York, most of the world’s leaders will come together to review progress on the “Millennium Development Goals” that the UN adopted ten years ago. All the anti-poverty campaigners will claim that change has been too little and too slow, but actually it hasn’t been bad at all.

Measured against the real state of the poorest countries in the late 20th century and not against some impossible dream of a perfect world, there have been major improvements in key areas like literacy, access to clean water and infant mortality. A great deal of the progress has been due to the efforts of the poor countries themselves, but there have been big changes in the behaviour of the rich countries too.

Back in the 60s, 70s and 80s, most aid to developing countries was driven by the competition for global influence in the Cold War – so when that confrontation suddenly ended in 1989-90, the rich countries’ main motive for giving aid vanished. The 90s were a miserable time when the flow of aid virtually dried up, and the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) of 2000 were an attempt to re-focus global attention on the needs of the poor.

To a surprising extent, it worked. Aid flows have recovered, much poor-country debt has been forgiven, and there have been startling success stories like Tanzania, where the literacy rate has jumped from 52 percent to 98 percent since 1991.

Even more important than the aid was the fact that the great powers stopped backing rulers in the developing countries who oppressed and stole from their own people. Once those thugs had been important, because they kept their countries on the right side in the Cold War. Afterwards, the West didn’t care whether they survived or not – and many of them didn’t.

Better leadership and cleaner politics account for much of the improvement, especially in parts of Africa. Ghana, for example, has cut the rate of child malnutrition in half since 1990. Some MDG targets, like halving the number of people in the world without access to clean water by 2015, would be met even without the “High-Level Plenary Meeting” in New York this month that is intended to re-energise the process.

The greatest decline in poverty has been in China and India, home to over half of the very poor people in the world, where high economic growth rates rather than foreign aid have lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. Hundreds of millions of others have been left behind, of course, but the glass is definitely half full, not half empty.

If the story ended there, it would be an uplifting tale. For thousands of years most people everywhere lived in dire poverty and ignorance. Then one group, the Europeans, discovered technologies and ways of doing things that made them unimaginably rich and powerful. They behaved very badly for a while, conquering everybody else in the world, but that is now over, and we can all look forward to a future of prosperity AND equality.

It sounds naive when you put it so baldly, but that is really the notion that lies behind things like the Millenium goals. It is certainly not an ignoble ambition, and ten years ago it seemed almost attainable. Today it seems much less so.

The problem is not the current economic slump. That is cutting into living standards in many places, but even if it lasts for years it is essentially a transient event. The real worm of doubt is the gradual realisation that seven billion human beings cannot all live the current lifestyle of the billion richest without causing an environmental and ecological catastrophe. It is inherently unsustainable.

Clean water, literacy and healthy children do no harm by themselves, but that is just a way-station on the path to a full “developed” style of life. We do not really imagine that the billions of poor should or will accept a permanent existence as healthier, more literate peasants who still live lightly upon the earth. They will demand the whole package, and it will be the ruination of us all.

Even one billion people consuming resources and producing pollution at the current rate may be unsustainable over a period of more than a generation or two. Seven or eight billion people living like that would be unsustainable even over a couple of decades: global warming and resource depletion would swiftly overwhelm our emerging global civilisation and its high aspirations.

Yet that is the road we have put ourselves on, because maintaining the gulf between the relatively few rich and the many poor is morally offensive and politically impossible. Rich really is better than poor, in the sense that people who are physically secure and have some freedom of choice in their lives are generally happier people. But we have to do a serious re-think about how we define the concept of rich.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7 (“Even…process”).

British and French Boomers

19 March 2010

British and French Boomers

By Gwynne Dyer

As a general rule, we should all encourage and support international cooperation. Once in a while, however, a proposal comes along that is so disconnected from reality that you check the date in case it’s April Fool’s Day. There is now such a proposal on the table.

The French government, according to a report in “The Guardian” on 19 March, has suggested that France and Britain pool their ballistic missile-firing submarines (“boomers”), in effect merging their nuclear deterrent forces. This would allow some savings on operational costs, since at the moment each country always has at least one “boomer” at sea.

Under the French proposal, they could just keep one submarine at sea, hidden and invulnerable in the mid-ocean depths, ready to retaliate against an attack on either Britain or France. That would leave the other crew, safely ashore, plenty of time to contemplate the huge can of worms that this strategy would open.

The whole policy of always having one boomer at sea is a left-over from a different era anyway. During the Cold War, when countries worried about the other side launching a nuclear Pearl Harbour, it made sense never to have ALL your missile-firing subs in port where they could easily be destroyed.

It’s the classic logic of deterrence. If the other side knows for certain that at least one submarine will survive, and shoot back with dozens of unstoppable nuclear warheads, then it won’t attack in the first place. That’s why Britain has four “Vanguard” class boomers and France has three “Triomphant” class boats with a fourth building: so there will always be one at sea.

However, the Cold War ended almost twenty years ago. No great power lives in fear of an attack from any other. Neither Britain nor France is within range of any of the non-great powers that have or are alleged to want nuclear weapons, like North Korea or Iran. Why don’t they just leave the boats in harbour, maybe taking one out for a training cruise from time to time?

But if Britain and France insist on maintaining these patrols, then they have to realise that one submarine cannot provide cover for both countries. The idea was apparently discussed for the first time when President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Prime Minister Gordon Brown in London in March, 2008, but it’s not likely that either man really understands the theory of deterrence. So here, for their benefit, is a potted version of the strategy.

Let’s suppose that it’s a British submarine out on patrol, and some evil country strikes France with nuclear weapons, eliminating all of France’s boomers in port. Does the British submarine retaliate with its own nuclear weapons, knowing that to do so means that Britain may also be attacked by nuclear weapons?

If I were French, I wouldn’t trust British promises about this. And if I were running the evil country in question, I would likewise doubt that Britain would really retaliate against me on France’s behalf, knowing that I might then hit British cities too. So deterrence fails, and all that money was wasted.

Soon after Sarkozy met with Brown in 2008, he said in a speech in Cherbourg: “Together with the United Kingdom, we have taken a major decision. It is our assessment that there can be no situation in which the vital interests of either of our two nations could be threatened without the vital interests of the other also being threatened.” Fine words, but not true.

In practice, when Britain has to choose between its loyalty to the European Union and its instinct to go with the United States, it almost always chooses the latter option. France has always had less faith in American judgment and in US willingness to fight a nuclear war on Europe’s behalf, which is why it spent all that money over two generations to build a truly independent nuclear deterrent force.

The British nuclear deterrent force is different, since the missiles it uses have been American ever since 1962. There is no formal US veto over the use of the missiles that are in British submarines, but those missiles are only leased by Britain and belong to a pool of missiles that also supplies American boomers. A missile that is in a British submarine this time around could be in an American one in its next service cycle.

The French navy must be furious at Sarkozy for offering, in effect, to combine their genuinely independent nuclear force with a British deterrent force that is very closely tied to the United States. Fortunately for France, the British navy doesn’t like the idea of job-sharing either, and can be counted on to resist, undermine, and ultimately kill the idea. The astonishing thing is that it ever got out into the public domain at all.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 10. (“This would…time”; and “Soon…true”)