Marty is very interested in us earthlings. Moreover, his
interest is entirely benevolent. Because he cannot live on our planet -- our
gravity and atmosphere forbid it -- and because he has no use for our
natural resources, Marty has no economic motives regarding our planet or its
Nonetheless, Marty is very concerned for our welfare. He
affirms, with the founders of our republic, that all humans are
endowed with equal rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
This includes Moslems and Russians as well as Americans. He would like all
human beings to be as happy and prosperous as possible, and he grieves at
our failure to achieve this utopia.
Marty understand us. Throughout a lifetime of thousands of
our earth-years, he has studied human history and human psychology. He is
fully aware that thrice in the past two centuries, armies from western
Europe have marched across Russia’s western border – most recently, at the
cost of twenty-five million Soviet citizens, or one sixth of the population.
Accordingly, he understands (as apparently American leaders and journalists
do not) why Russian citizens and the Russian government are alarmed when
NATO, a military alliance, conducts military exercises alongside that
Marty is also quite aware that Americans and Russians have
radically different attitudes toward war. To most Russians, war is an
unspeakable horror, fought on their native soil. To the Americans, war is a
glorious adventure as depicted in movies and TV, fought somewhere "over
there." The fortunate Americans have not suffered a war within their borders
since the Civil War, a century and a half ago.
Marty, who loves all earthlings equally, is deeply saddened
by the resumption of the cold war between the United States and NATO, on one
side, and Russia on the other. He understands that in the United States,
this new cold war is very beneficial to the profits of the defense
industries, to the careers of politicians and military officers, and to the
circulation of the corporate media. But for the ordinary American citizens,
and for the future of the political economies of the opposing nations, the
cold war is a disaster.
In the name of national defense:"
Domestic economies are starved. Physical infrastructure
– roads, bridges, water and power supplies – crumble into disrepair.
Public school budgets are cut, and higher education becomes
Civil liberties and constitutional rights are set
aside. Among them, Fourth Amendment restrictions on search and seizure,
Fifth Amendment right to a fair trial and against imprisonment without
charge. International laws against torture and wars of aggression are
With full media and legislative attention drawn to the
threat from "foreign enemies," coordinated multi-national responses to
genuine global emergencies such as climate change and terrorism become
Above all, as the hostility between the rivals intensifies,
so too does the threat of nuclear war. Both sides are fully aware that a
deliberate, full-scale nuclear attack – a "nuclear Pearl Harbor" – is highly
unlikely, since the retaliation from such an attack would result in the
total annihilation of the aggressor. Far more likely would be a nuclear war
by uncontrolled escalation, derangement or accident -- for example the
misinterpretation of a radar signal or a computer malfunction. There were
many such "close calls" during the first cold war, as identified
In the language of
game theory, from the point of view of the military-industrial-media
complex, the new Cold War is a plus-sum contest – inflated budgets, career
advancement, advertising revenues. From the point of view of strategic
planners, it is zero-sum: "if we win, they lose, and if we lose, they win."
From the point of view of humanity in general – and of Marty, the wise and
benevolent Martian – the Cold War is minus-sum, threatening infinite loss:
total nuclear annihilation.
THE MORAL POINT OF VIEW
And now, to the essential point of this fable: one need
not be a Martian to assume Marty’s point of view.
The concept of the perspective of the unbiased, informed and
benevolent observer has many names, and is prominent in the history of moral
and political philosophy: "the impartial spectator" (Adam Smith), "the ideal
observer" (John Stuart Mill), "the general will" (Rousseau), "the view from
nowhere" (Thomas Nagel), "the original position" (John Rawls). My preferred
term, in common usage among moral philosophers, is "the moral point of
The moral point of view is not restricted to philosophers.
It is commonly applied by ecologists: "the ecolate view" (Garret Hardin) and
"thinking like a mountain" (Aldo Leopold). It is the approach of successful
marriage counselors and diplomatic negotiators, and it is implicit in the
golden rule which is found in all the great world religions.
Numerous moral, political and economic puzzles, unsolvable
from the orthodox economic point of view of the self-serving "utility maximizing" individual
or nation, are readily solvable from the moral point of view. Among these
puzzles are the tragedy of the commons, the prisoners’ dilemma, the Hobbesian state of nature, and market failure ("negative externalities").
(For an elaboration, see my
"The Moral Point of
Perhaps the dangerous new cold war between Russia and the
United States/NATO might also be disengaged through negotiation from the
moral point of view. We will explore this possibility shortly.
To be sure, some international conflicts are not negotiable:
not if one of the contesting powers has no use for compromise and is
dead-set upon conquest and mayhem, whatever the cost. Clearly, Napoleon and
Hitler are cases in point. The western neo-cons and much of the corporate
American media would have us believe that Vladimir Putin belongs to this
Hillary Clinton has compared Vladimir Putin to Hitler. It’s that
Quite frankly, I am not persuaded that Putin is another
Hitler. This dire accusation requires evidence, and I find little evidence
to support it. Absent such evidence, perhaps the moral point of view is
worth a try.
My hypothetical critic responds: "What are you, some kind of
traitor? Who’s side are you on? The side of America and its allies, or the
side of the Putin and the Russians?"
My reply: I reject this zero-sum paradigm. In other words,
like Marty the saintly Martian, I am on the "side" of humanity, which
encompasses both American and Russian interests. The single-minded
determination of each side to prevail over the other is a dead-end path,
threatening ruin for all at the end of that path.
Both "sides" of the new cold war share common interests, and
it is these common interests that must capture our attention if we are to
escape from the trap of the zero-sum perspective on the new cold war
Negotiation requires concessions, and if the revived cold
war is to be peacefully resolved, there will be costs to both sides. Among
these costs: senior military officers must sacrifice their promotions, and
media empires must find other means to maintain their audiences. And the
mighty military-industrial complex might have to devote its formidable
engineering talents to other urgent tasks, such as high-speed railroads,
carbon capture and green energy.
These costs will be trivial compared to the enormous
benefits of ending the cold war.
TIT FOR TAT: THE BENIGN CIRCLE.
An arms race is typically and correctly described as a
"vicious circle." One side introduces an advanced weapons system, and the
other responds and raises the ante with a breakthrough of its own. A
provocation elicits a response which in turn brings on a counter-response.
Military budgets soar, each side citing the "threat" allegedly posed by the
other as justification for further escalations , while domestic priorities
are neglected. As the late economist, Kenneth Boulding put it, in the first
Cold War, the American and Soviet military establishments were, in effect,
symbiotic allies at war with their respective civilian economies.
Thus the escalation continues until war breaks out; more
likely than not, due to accident, blunder or miscalculation. The first Cold
War ended peacefully, at least for a brief historical moment. There is
little reason to assume that we will all be as fortunate with this renewed
Though little noticed by our politicians and media, there is
positive polar-opposite to a "vicious circle:" a "benign circle," which we
might call "tit-for-tat de-escalation." It could be a path out of the deadly
Cold War trap now threatening the peace of the world. It could be, but for
the venomous propaganda on both sides which make peaceful resolution ever
more difficult. Witness that scorn heaped upon Donald Trump and his
defenders, as they even dare suggest that we might "get along" with the
Russians. (I’ll have more to say about this in my next essay, "Vladimir
Putin as Emmanuel Goldstein." Those familiar with George Orwell’s 1984 will
understand the reference).
"Tit for tat" is the name given to "benign-circle conflict
resolution" by Robert Axelrod, in his book
The Evolution of Cooperation (Basic books, 1984). Following
an extensive investigation, featuring computer simulations, Axelrod
concluded that the most effective method of conflict resolution is through
reciprocating "good faith" concessions. The process continues until one side
"defects" (i.e., does not respond, or still worse, takes advantage of the other
side’s concession). The process can survive occasional defections, but if
they become numerous, then, as one side realizes that it is being
"suckered," it withdraws and the negotiation ends.
Could the US/NATO alliance and the Russian Federation arrive
at a peaceful conflict resolution through "tit for tat" negotiation?
Possibly. But only if it begins in secret. The poisonous propaganda heard on
both sides makes open and public negotiation impossible. During the first
Cold War, we often heard that "if you yield an inch to the Soviets, they
will try to take a mile." With such an attitude, de-escalation is doomed at
THE ROAD BACK FROM THE BRINK:
The negotiations begin, as they must, with a recognition of
There are, I believe, three dominating concerns shared by
the East and the West: climate change, nuclear war, and Islamic terrorism.
If these can be recognized and dealt with through cooperative action by both
sides, the issues that divide us will be significantly diminished.
I will not elaborate on the threats of climate change and
Islamic terrorism, having done so elsewhere. (Islamic terrorism
any case, these common threats are obvious to most informed citizens. The
threat of nuclear war, however, deserves some elaboration.
In the minds of most American citizens, the greatest
threat is a "nuclear Pearl Harbor:" a planned, coordinated and massive "first
strike.." This is the view promoted by the military-industrial complex and
the corporate media. It is this view that justifies the production and
more than 7,000 nuclear weapons, along with the multi-trillion dollar
investment in the so-called "nuclear triad" – ICBMs, aircraft, and
In fact, as noted above, a "nuclear Pearl Harbor" is very
unlikely, due to "MAD" – the mutually assured destruction that would follow
a first strike. Both sides are fully aware that a first strike would in
effect, be suicidal.
The far greater threat is an unintended global nuclear war
resulting from uncontrolled escalation (the World War I/Sarajevo scenario), computer
malfunction (the "War Games" scenario), derangement (the "Dr. Strangelove"
Scenario). This is not idle speculation: history confirms this threat. In
1962, the dissent of one Soviet naval officer,
prevented the launch of a nuclear armed torpedo in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In 1983, another Soviet officer,
in defiance of standing orders, delayed notification of a US missile strike.
The "missile attack" turned out to be a rogue reflection of sunlight in the
lens of a surveillance satellite. Unarmed hydrogen bombs fell from American
bombers on South Carolina and off the coast of Spain. As noted above,
there were many more such "near nuclear misses" on both sides.
There is a strange and deadly paradox involved in the
strategic prioritization of deterrence (MAD) over prevention of unintended
war. The more deployed weapons, the greater the deterrence, although one
might imagine that a few hundred warheads, rather than thousands, would
suffice. At the same time, the more warheads, the greater the chance that
one of those warheads might accidentally initiate a holocaust. (I explore
this paradox in greater detail
Back to our secret de-escalation conference:
Assuming both sides agree regarding the primary threats to
both sides – climate, nuclear war, and terrorism – and assuming that they
agree to adopt a "benign circle" ("tit for tat") strategy, how might they
Perhaps the first order of business might be to ease the
tension along the western border of Russia.
And excellent first step might be the removal of the NATO
missile sites in Poland and Romania. The NATO justification of these sites,
defense against a missile attach from Iran, is absurd on its face. No one
believes this, since Iran has no long-range missiles, and furthermore,
thanks to the recent negotiated agreement, no prospect of developing nuclear
weapons. So the removal of these missile sites should be an easy step.
Russia might respond by agreeing to withdraw its regular
army units 200 kilometers east of its western border – especially its border
with Ukraine and the Baltic states. Unlike the early Cold War, with the U-2
overflights over the Soviet Union, with today’s satellite technology,
verification would be simple and reliable. (Have you used Google Earth
This might be followed in turn by a comparable withdrawal of
NATO troops, and a cessation of military exercises, near the Russian border.
But what about Crimea, which has provoked the West’s
economic sanctions against Russia? Should not Russia return Crimea to
Ukraine? On its face, it seems to be an obvious move. On closer inspection,
not at all obvious. A simple return of the annexed territory to Ukraine
might be a bridge too far. Russian public opinion would not tolerate this.
But the largest obstacle, perhaps, would be the Crimeans, who, it seems,
overwhelmingly prefer to be a part of Russia rather than Ukraine. Shouldn’t
they have a say in the matter?
Solution? Possibly a validation of the Crimeans’ preference
with another referendum, this time monitored by the United Nations. If, as
expected, Crimeans once again opt to join Russia, then Russia should be
prepared to compensate Ukraine for its loss of this valuable territory.
Next, the Russians should pledge never to annex the
Russian-speaking eastern provinces of Ukraine, as the West agrees in return
not to extend NATO membership to Ukraine. Then Ukraine, for its part, should
agree to adopt a federation, with semi-autonomous Russian and Ukrainian
regions. A bi-lingual nation? Why not? It works quite well in Belgium and
With an easing of military tensions, the time would then be
ripe to reinstate educational, cultural and scientific exchanges. Russian
scientists and technologists might then join a coordinated global effort to
halt and possibly reverse climate change. Nuclear stockpiles would then be
radically reduced, as they were at the end of the first cold war, and
removed from "launch on warning" status. Russian, American, European and,
yes, some Islamic countries, might unite in a joint campaign against
"Impossible!" say the neo-cons. "Naive and dangerous!"
"Start making concessions the Russians, and they will only demand more, with
no reciprocating concessions on their part. You just can’t trust those
Perhaps. And if so, then we will find out soon enough, and
the New Cold War will be on again, whereupon we all may be on the road to
On the other hand, a "benign circle" of accommodation might
lead to a new era of peace, prosperity and partnership.
If the tit-for-tat experiment fails, what do we lose? A few
useless missile bases in eastern Europe? A strategically deployed military?
The withdrawn NATO military units can be readily redeployed along the Russian
border. Small costs compared to the enormous advantages of peaceful
coexistence and partnership that will follow successful negotiations.
In sum, little to lose and much to gain – a gamble well
worth taking. Russians win. Americans win. The world at large wins.
From his moral point of view on Mars, Marty would be
And you should be too.
"All I am saying, is give peace a chance."