The world is entering what looks like a new, even more complex cold war, in which any misunderstanding, mishap or false move could rapidly escalate into nuclear confrontation
The most pressing threat to global security right now isn’t so-called “provocations” by either Russia or China. It is the United States’ misplaced obsession with its own “credibility”.
This rallying cry by Washington officials – echoed by the media and allies in London and elsewhere – is code for allowing the US to act like a global gangster while claiming to be the world’s policeman. US “credibility” was apparently thrown into question last summer – and only when President Joe Biden held firm to a pledge to pull US troops out of Afghanistan.
Prominent critics, including in the Pentagon, objected that any troop withdrawal would both suggest the US was backing off from a commitment to maintain the so-called “international order” and further embolden the West’s “enemies” – from the Taliban and Islamic State (IS) group to Russia and China.
In a postmortem in September, General Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, echoed a view common in Washington: “I think that our credibility with allies and partners around the world, and with adversaries, is being intensely reviewed by them to see which way this is going to go – and I think that damage is one word that could be used.”
At the same time, a former defence official in the George W Bush administration judged US credibility after the Afghanistan withdrawal at “rock bottom“.
The only way this understanding of US “credibility” makes sense is if one disregards the disastrous previous two decades of Washington’s role in Afghanistan. Those were the years in which the US army propped up a bunch of wildly unpopular kleptocrats in Kabul who ransacked the public coffers as the US launched an arms’ length drone war that ended up killing large numbers of Afghan civilians.
To bolster its apparently diminished “credibility” after the troop withdrawal, the US has imposed crushing sanctions on Afghanistan, deepening its current famine. There have also been reports of CIA efforts to run covert operations against the Taliban by aiding its opponents.
Cold War relic
Washington’s “credibility” was also seemingly in peril when US and Russian officials met in Geneva this week for negotiations in the midst of a diplomatic, and potential military, standoff over Ukraine.
The background are demands from Moscow that Washington stops encircling Russia with military bases and that Nato end its relentless advancement towards Russia’s borders. Nato should be a relic of a Cold War-era that officially ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991. Moscow dissolved its own version of Nato, the Warsaw Pact, more than three decades ago.
Russia had been given verbal assurances in 1990 by George HW Bush’s administration that Nato would not expand militarilybeyond the borders of what was then West Germany. Seven years later, President Bill Clinton signed the Nato-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations, which committed Russia and Nato not to treat each other “as adversaries”, while Nato reiterated that there would be no “additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” in former Eastern bloc states.
Every subsequent US administration has flagrantly broken both of these pledges, with Nato troops now stationed across eastern Europe. Perhaps not surprisingly, Moscow feels as menaced by Nato’s aggressive posturing, which serves to revive its Cold War fears, as Washington would if Russia placed military bases in Cuba and Mexico.
No one should forget that the US was prepared to bring the world to the brink of armageddon in a nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union in 1962 to prevent Moscow from stationing nuclear missiles in Cuba.
Despite the current clamour about the need for the US to maintain its “credibility”, Washington was in fact only being asked at the Geneva talks to start honouring, 30 years late, commitments it made long ago and has repeatedly violated.
The latest flashpoint is Ukraine, Russia’s neighbour, which has been roiling since a coup in 2014 overthrew the elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of Moscow. The deeply divided country is split between those who want to prioritise their historic ties with Russia and those who want to be embraced by the European Union.
Moscow – and a proportion of Ukrainians – believe Washington and Europe are exploiting the push for an economic pact to engineer Ukraine’s subordination to Nato security policies, directed against Russia. Such fears are not misplaced. Each of what were formerly Soviet states that became an EU member has also been recruited to Nato. In fact, since 2009 it has been an official requirement, through the Treaty of Lisbon, that EU member states align their security policies with Nato.
Now US “credibility” apparently depends on its determination to bring Nato to Russia’s front door, via Ukraine.
Reporting on a working dinner with Russian diplomats last Sunday, before the Geneva meeting, Wendy Sherman, the US deputy secretary of state, recast that perfidy as the US stressing its commitment to “the freedom of sovereign nations to choose their own alliances”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, is being widely made out to be the aggressor after he posted tens of thousands of troops at the border with Ukraine.
One can argue whether those soldiers are massed for an invasion of Ukraine, as is being widely assumed in the western media, or as a show of force against a US-led Nato that believes it can do whatever it pleases in Russia’s backyard. Either way, a miscalculation by either side could prove disastrous.
According to the New York Times, General Milley has warned the Russians that an invasion force would face a prolonged insurgency backed by US weaponry. There are reports that Stinger anti-aircraft missiles have already been delivered to Ukraine.
Similarly, Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, has threatened“confrontation and massive consequences for Russia if it renews its aggression on Ukraine”.
Drumbeat of war
This reckless way of projecting “credibility” – and thereby making confrontations and war more, not less, likely – is currently on show in relation to another nuclear-armed power, China. For many months, the Biden administration has been playing what looks like a game of chicken with Beijing over China’s continuing assertion of a right to use force against Taiwan, a self-governing island off the coast of China that Beijing claims as its territory.
Few countries formally recognise Taiwan as a state, and nothing in relations between Taipei and China is settled. That includes heated disagreements over the division of airspace, with Taiwan – backed by the US – claiming that a whole chunk of southeast mainland China falls within its “defence zone”. That means the scaremongering headlines about record numbers of Chinese warplanes flying over Taiwan need to be taken with a large pinch of salt.
The same disputes apply to China and Taiwan’s respective claims to territorial waters, with a similar potential for provocation. The pair’s conflicting views of what constitutes their security and sovereignty are a ready hair-trigger for war – and in circumstances where one party possesses a large nuclear arsenal.
Nonetheless, the Biden administration has stomped into this long-simmering feud by feeding the media with alarmist headlines and security analysts with talking points about a possible US war with China over Taiwan. Top Pentagon officials have also stoked concerns of an imminent invasion of Taiwan by China.
Diplomatically, President Biden snubbed his nose at Beijing by inviting Taiwan to attend his so-called “democracy summit” last month. The event further inflamed Chinese indignation by showing Taiwan and China in separate colours on a regional map.
The CIA has announced the establishment of a new espionage centre with an exclusive focus on China. According to CIA director William Burns, it is necessary because the US is faced with “an increasingly adversarial Chinese government”. That “adversary”, however, poses no direct threat to US security – unless Washington chooses provocatively to bring Taiwan under its security umbrella.
Washington’s drumbeat has been so constant that a recent poll showed more than half of Americans supported sending US troops to defend Taiwan.
Nuclear hard line
The picture is the same with Iran. US “credibility” is being cited as the reason why Washington needs to take a hard line against Tehran – goaded, as ever, by Israel – on its presumed ambitions to build a nuclear bomb.
Israel, of course, has had its own large arsenal of nuclear weapons for decades – entirely unmonitored and in violation of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Both the US and Israel fear Iran wants to level the nuclear playing field in the Middle East. Israel is determined to make sure that only it has the power to make nuclear-backed threats, either against others in the region or as leverage in Washington to get its way.
President Barack Obama’s administration signed an agreement with Iran in 2015 placing strict limits on Tehran’s development of nuclear technology. In return, Washington lifted some of the most punishing sanctions on the country. Three years later, however, President Donald Trump reneged on the deal.
Now Iran suffers the worst of both worlds. The US has again intensified the sanctions regime while demanding that Tehran renew the deal on worse terms – and with no promise, according to US Secretary of State Blinken, that the next US administration won’t tear up the agreement anyway.
US “credibility” does not depend, it seems, on Washington being required to keep its word.
In the background, as ever, is the threat of joint military reprisals from Israel and the US. In October, Biden reportedly asked his national security adviser to review Pentagon plans for a military strike if this one-sided “diplomatic process” failed. A month later, Israel approved $1.5bn for precisely such an eventuality.
Drunk on power
Washington’s emphasis on its “credibility” is actually a story the US elite tells itself and western publics to obscure the truth. What is really prized is America’s ability to enforce its economic interests and military superiority unchallenged across the globe.
After the Korean and Vietnam wars, and the US overthrow of the elected government of Iran to reinstall its dictator-monarch, there is barely a corner of the planet where the US has not meddled. In Lebanon, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, Syria and its so-called “backyard”, Latin America, US “credibility” has required interventions and war as an alternative to diplomacy.
In October 2019, as Trump suggested that US troops would be pulled out of Syria – where they had no authorisation from the United Nations to be in the first place – Leon Panetta, a former defence secretary and former head of the CIA, observed that the decision had “weakened the US” and “undercut our credibility in the world”.
He added: “There isn’t an ally that we’ve around the world that doesn’t now distrust us and worry about whether or not we will stand by our word.”
But this kind of credibility is built not on principle, on respecting others’ national sovereignty, or on peace-building, but on the gangsterism of a superpower drunk on its own power and its ability to intimidate and crush rivals.
Washington’s “word” is only selectively kept, as its treatment of Russia and Iran highlight. And enforcement of its “credibility” – from breaking commitments to threatening war – has had a predictable effect: they have driven Washington’s “enemies” into an opposition camp out of necessity.
The US has created a more menacing adversary, as Russia and China, two nuclear powers, have found a common purpose in asserting a countervailing pressure on Washington. Since the late summer, the two have held a series of war games and joint military exercises, each of them a first.
The world is entering what looks like a new, even more complex cold war, in which any misunderstanding, mishap or false move could rapidly escalate into nuclear confrontation. If it happens, the pursuit of US “credibility” will have played a central part in the catastrophe.