Today, twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and nineteen years
after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the military budget of the United
States is larger than at any time during the Cold War and roughly equal to
the total of all other military budgets throughout the world.
Why, in the midst of the greatest economic
emergency in seventy years, with the public sector of the U.S. economy
starved for funds required for economic recovery, and with urgent global
climate and energy crises directly before us, have we failed to benefit from
a "peace dividend" from the end of the Cold War? Why are we instead engaged
in two wars in nations that pose no threat to us?
It appears that Einstein was right:
everything has changed except our modes of thinking, and thus, as he warned,
"we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe."
The good news is that we have the means to
avoid catastrophe. The far worse news is that there is little evidence that
the political and economic structures in place will allow us to escape that
TIT FOR TAT
Last September, President Obama announced
that the United States was cancelling plans to establish a ballistic missile
defense system** (BMD) in Poland and the Czech Republic. This decision, which
appalled Republicans and neo-cons in the U.S., along with many Czech and
Polish politicians, delighted peace activists both in the U. S. and
throughout the world.
Also delighted were the Russians, who had
regarded the missile defense shield, first proposed by George Bush (the
lesser), as a provocation, aimed at neutralizing the Russian strategic
missile capability. The Russians were unconvinced by Bush’s assurance that
the BMD was designed as a defense against a missile attack from Iran, a
skepticism that was shared by many American critics.
Obama’s decision to cancel the BMD was
shortly followed by a Russian announcement
that it would not deploy missiles in the Baltic city of Kaliningrad,
along with an indication that this decision was in response to Obama’s
announcement regarding the bases in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Thus began the first two moves of a
de-escalation strategy known to game-theorists and political scientists as
"Tit for Tat," whereby an initiation of a conciliatory act is responded to
in kind, and so on reciprocally, until one player elects to take advantage
of the cooperating opponent (i.e., "defects").
This particular game came to an abrupt
halt the following month when Vice President Biden, in a visit to the Czech
Republic, assured the Czech President that the U.S. would, after all,
install a "modified" missile defense shield.
One can only speculate as to what might
have happened had the American/Russian Tit For Tat game continued. Following
the Kaliningrad announcement, it was Obama’s "turn." Instead of reneging on
the original BMD decision, Obama might have announced that ICBMs would
henceforth be equipped with in-flight "abort" mechanisms, to minimize the
chance of an accidental nuclear war (which,
as I have argued elsewhere, is the most likely cause of a global
Russia’s turn? Presumably the same. Then,
to "up the ante," perhaps an agreement to cooperate with the U.S. and NATO
in their opposition the Iranian nuclear weapons program.
And so on. The opportunities and options
for reciprocating "Tit For Tat" cooperation and de-escalation are endless.
So why haven’t these opportunities been
pursued and accomplished? The question encompasses nothing less than the
history of the Cold War and the enormously complicated theories and
ideologies of international diplomacy. However, I have a simple suggestion:
there is too much wealth and power invested in diplomatic "business as
usual" to allow significant change.
THE PRISONER’S DILEMMA.
Great power rivalries have often been
described as "prisoner’s dilemmas" – a thought experiment also familiar to
game theorists and political scientists. This is the paradigm example:
Two conspiring prisoners are
separately brought before a judge, who presents each prisoner with this
proposal: "If you confess and implicate your accomplice and he remains
silent, I will sentence him to ten years and release you. If you both
confess, I will sentence each of you to five years. And if you both
remain silent, I will sentence each of you to one year."
If you reflect on this "deal," you will
find some fascinating implications, both moral and practical. First of all,
"the best is the enemy of the good"; the more each prisoner is inclined to
achieve the best outcome for himself, the less likely he is to get it.
Second, the best outcome for both (both silent, a year each) is not the best
outcome for each (release). Third, the more each prisoner trusts the other
the more likely the best outcome for both (i.e., both silent). (I examine
The Prisoner’s Dilemma in more detail
The Prisoner’s dilemma is much more than
an idle thought-experiment. You can see it in action almost every week on TV
in "Law and Order" or other such crime dramas. It’s called "plea
bargaining." We all know the script: "here’s the deal – you give up the
other guy and we’ll go easy on you. Your buddy is in the other room right
now, and the first to cooperate gets the deal. Your time is running out."
This is how the prisoner’s dilemma might
apply to an arms race: During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet
Union each had a choice: to arm or to disarm. Disarming, while the other did
not, invited attack and/or economic and political defeat (loss of global
dominance). Mutual disarmament allowed national resources to be invested in
the domestic economies. Mutual arming – i.e., the arms race – resulted in
the impoverishment of both economies and a constant "hair-trigger" danger of
a catastrophic thermonuclear exchange.
As we all know, it was the last option
that was followed by the great powers until, with the advent of Mikhail
Gorbachev, glasnost and perestroika, the Soviet Union
unilaterally disarmed. To the amazement of the Cold Warriors on both sides,
this did not, as feared, result in an attack by the U.S. and NATO nor the
defeat of Russia, though it did accompany the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Today, a pale vestige of the Cold War
remains, as both the United States and Russia still have strategic nuclear
missiles armed and ready and, as the dispute over the Czech and Polish BMD
sites testify, each side is suspicious of the intentions of the other. Both
sides face severe economic crises, and thus have much to gain by disarming
and directing their national resources to dealing with domestic issues.
There is much more cooperation and trust today between the United States and
Russia than there was during the Cold War. Accordingly, the time is right,
at long last, to prevent the outbreak of a new Cold War and to secure a
lasting peace between the United States and Russia.
So why was Joe Biden dispatched to Prague
to put an end to the developing "benign circle" of Tit For Tat mutual
That question is a small piece of a much
larger question: Why does the United States government find it necessary to
spend close to a trillion dollars on "national defense" – roughly equal to
the military budgets of all other nations combined – while this nation is in
the midst of the greatest economic crisis in seventy years, and as the
entire planet faces the catastrophic consequences of climate change and end
of abundant fossil energy sources? We are told that we are engaged in a "war
on terror" against a band of outlaws, hiding in caves and remote tribal
villages. Why, then, do we build multi-billion dollar nuclear submarines and
aircraft carriers to use against an "enemy" without a navy, and build
fighters and bombers to use against an "enemy" without an air force?
EISENHOWER HAD IT RIGHT
the councils of government, we must
guard against the acquisition of
unwarranted influence, whether
sought or unsought, by the
military-industrial complex. The
potential for the disastrous rise of
misplaced power exists and will
Dwight D. Eisenhower
The answer is compelling: Obama and Biden
chose not to play Tit For Tat with the Russians, simply because "the powers
that be" in Washington, Wall Street, and the Military-Industrial Complex do
not desire a de-escalation, and furthermore would be rather pleased to see a
resumption of the Cold War.
I understand that this sounds unspeakably
paranoid. But consider the stakes involved. In January, 2002, the Pentagon
auditors admitted that
some 2.3 trillion dollars of defense budgets were "unaccounted for."
That’s "trillion" with a "T" – 2.3 million times a million. Now where do you
suppose all those trillions went? And as we are well aware, billions upon
billions of public money is going into the private hands of the
"contractors" in Iraq and Afghanistan. But for Iraq, Halliburton, Inc., now
awash in public cash, would be bankrupt due to the mismanagement of its
former CEO, one Richard Cheney. And Cheney is by no means the only
beneficiary of Pentagon largesse. In short, enormous fortunes and thousands
of careers, both military and industrial, depend upon a continuation of
strategic business as usual.
Now of course, nobody wants a nuclear war.
But face it, the threat of nuclear war, or of nuclear terrorism, is a gift
to the military industrial complex that keeps on giving. No threat, no fear
– no appropriations.
As the late economist, Kenneth Boulding,
commented to me some twenty-five years ago, "the American and Soviet
military establishments are symbiotic allies ‘at war’ with their own
Not only does a hypertrophic military suck
the lifeblood out of our domestic economy, still worse it succumbs to
Maslow's rule: "to a carpenter, all problems can be solved with a hammer."
Madeleine Albright admitted as much when she said to Colin Powell, "what's
the point of [having] this superb military ... if we can't use it?"
(Albright, Madam Secretary, p. 182) Diplomacy? Negotiations?
International law? Treaties? The United Nations? Fagetaboutit!
Send the Marines!
Face it, if there were no "enemy" to keep
the military-industrial complex humming along would it not be necessary to
invent one? Come to think of it, perhaps, in large part, the enemy has been
invented. During the Cold War, the Department of Defense published an annual
report, Soviet Military Power: An Analysis of the Threat. Primarily
addressed to the Congress, it was in effect a wish list and a sales pitch
for an ever-increasing military budget. When, after the fall of the Soviet
Union, the military capability of the Soviets was closely inspected, the DoD
assessment was found to be wildly inflated. (See my
About the Russians? Personal Encounters).
And now, the "necessary enemy" is Osama
bin Laden and Al Qaeda, Whatever would we do without OBL? Had Osama ("wanted
dead or alive" – George Bush) been captured or killed shortly after the 9/11
attacks, what then would have become of "the War on Terror:" Gitmo,
"enhanced interrogation," The Patriot Act, warrantless wiretaps, suspension
of habeas corpus. How might the 2004 election have turned out? So we
ask today, how was it possible for OBL to escape when he was surrounded at
Tora Bora? And how is it possible for an individual with failing kidneys on
dialysis to survive in the Afghan wilderness for eight years? "If there were
no enemy, would it not be necessary to invent one?" Just wondering.
SWORDS INTO PLOWSHARES
"There is a need to create ideals
even when you can’t see any route by
which to achieve them, because if
there are no ideals then there can
be no hope and then one would be
completely in the dark, in a
hopeless blind alley."
If these "paranoid" suspicions are even
partially correct – if the military-industrial complex has a death-grip on
our economy and politics – how can we possibly escape? After all, just about
the only thriving manufacturing enterprise remaining in the United States is
the defense industry. If the Department of Defense appropriations were cut
to a "reasonable" one-third, would not unemployment skyrocket and tax
revenues plunge? Would not our already sick economy lapse into critical
condition? In short, can we afford peace?
We can and we must, for the environmental
and resource perils immediately before us far outweigh any military threats,
either real or imagined.
If managed skillfully, a drastic cut in
the military budget, far from aggravating the current economic crisis, can
lead us out of it. After all, we’ve done it before. Just as, in 1942, the
U.S. economy mobilized from a peacetime to a war economy in months, and
then, in 1945, reversed the process in less time and led to a sustained era
of prosperity, we can do it again.
What it will take is a unified sense of
national purpose – a realization that as we take leave of a fictional
crisis, we are facing an actual global emergency: global warming and the end
of the petroleum age.
And just as World War II ended the great
depression of the thirties, the new crises might put an end to the present
economic emergency and inaugurate a renaissance of education, research,
development, and industrialization, which means innovation, jobs and
investments. New sources of energy and modes of transportation might be
developed and installed. The next generations must then be educated to deal
with the new world that we are leaving to them.
Simply stated, the military-industrial
complex must not be dismantled, it must be converted.
All this is possible. But as long as the
present political and economic structures prevail, I fear that it is very
Quite frankly, I don’t see a way out. I’m
not saying that there is no escape, just I can’t see one. But history has a
way of surprising us. In 1933, new leaders took power in Germany and in the
United States. One led his nation to ruin, and the other to renewal. "Two
I once believed that Barack Obama might be
another FDR who might inspire and unite the American people to overcome the
dreadful crisis that he inherited from the disastrous Bush regime. But now,
that hope has faded as Obama has apparently been co-opted by "the enemy."
As I have often noted before, the
situation before us appears to be hopeless: as hopeless as George
Washington’s prospects at Valley Forge, as hopeless as Gandhi’s struggle
against the British Empire, as hopeless as Martin Luther King’s Birmingham
bus boycott, as hopeless as Andrei Sakharov’s protest against Soviet
And yet, somehow, they all ultimately
In the final analysis, the oligarchs who
own our government and control the media, however wealthy and powerful, are
few. Their victims – all the rest of us – are many, and we are the ultimate
source of their wealth and, through our passive acquiescence, of their
Shakespeare’s Cassius spoke to us as well
as to Brutus, when he said: "men at some time are masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are