(Bloomberg View) -- In his brilliant book tracing the origins of the First World War, “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914,” Christopher Clark says, “The protagonists were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.”
As the prestigious Munich Security Conference wrapped up over President’s Day weekend, the pervading feeling of many longtime observers is that we are again sleepwalking toward a conflict nobody wants or needs -- this time with nuclear weapons. The hallways of this conference were jammed as usual, resembling a policy-wonk mosh pit. The conversations on the platform ranged from Senator Lindsey Graham’s suggestion of a European version of Guantanamo Bay to take in the hundreds of Syrian jihadists, to Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s question to the Iranian Foreign Minister as he waved around a piece of an Iranian drone: “Do you recognize this?”
By the end of the conference, almost no one could recognize the international regime, which seems to change continually these days under the press of events.
Spurred by tactical disagreements (in the early 20th century, it was the Balkans; today it is the Levant and near Middle East), great and medium-sized powers are increasingly at odds. The Eastern Mediterranean is full of U.S., Russian, Turkish, Israeli, Iranian, Syrian and NATO-member maritime patrols -- with occasional forays from China and India to what we now know is a hydrocarbon-rich corner of the world. In the South China Sea, the U.S. and China square off as China builds artificial islands and claims the vast body of water as a territorial sea -- akin to the U.S. claiming the entire Gulf of Mexico. Russia blithely interferes in the U.S. presidential election, and the West continues with strong sanctions on Moscow.
In the high north, the Arctic ice is melting. As rich shipping lanes are uncovered throughout an ever-longer Arctic summer, the opportunity for geopolitical ambitions rises. A brace of NATO and European Union nations (Canada, the U.S., Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland) face off across the drifting sea ice from the Russian Federation. A new race to build icebreakers is off and running and the U.S., without a single one of any size that is seaworthy, is lagging.
China’s One Belt One Road initiative -- creating new ports, highways, dams and other vast infrastructure projects across Asia -- increasingly becomes a reality. Beijing’s defense budget is rising rapidly, its shipyards are building new aircraft carriers, and it is emphasizing “sharp power,” a blend of hard and soft power that focuses on geo-economics and the newly emergent term “geo-tech.” Both are forms of 21st-century power that challenge the U.S. and its Western allies globally, especially in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. China’s internal challenges -- lack of a democratic process for leadership transitions, a badly damaged environment, an overheated real estate market, badly skewed gender-balance demographics coupled with an aging population -- could cause it to lash out and find enemies abroad to slay.
Russia in many ways is a failing empire -- a truly dangerous international entity throughout human political history (consider the Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman Empires in the run-up to World War I). Its demographics are declining, exacerbated by high levels of alcoholism and drug addiction; the economy has yet to truly diversify beyond oil and natural gas; the population is poorly distributed, with 80 percent living west of the Ural Mountains, leaving a huge, empty and tempting space for China to contemplate; and its leader has a nearly pathological hatred for the U.S. and NATO. And the Russians are perfecting a lethal combination of information warfare, electoral interference, special operations, cyber-warfare and propaganda even as they chafe bitterly under Western sanctions. Russia is a great nation -- a civilization by any measure -- that is becoming an angry island in the center of Eurasia.
The European Union staggers along, as its most powerful and important nation, Germany, struggles to find a path for effective governance. An ambitious but utterly inexperienced president leads France, while the U.K. is departing the EU even as the rest of the Euro bloc finally begins to rebound from the 2009 recession. There are calls for an independent EU military structure, dubbed Pesco, which might create duplication and competition with NATO. Disagreements abound, and the best pool of partners available to the U.S. -- the western Europeans -- are at odds about everything from the future of their union to the best way to deal with immigration.
Worst of all, there are increasing calls to “normalize” the way in which we view nuclear weapons. Russia continues to play the nuclear card, with Vladimir Putin seldom missing an opportunity to remind the West that he has tens of thousands of nuclear weapons at his disposal. Russian doctrine increasingly sees so-called low-yield weapons, warheads that can be “dialed down” to destructive power less than that of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as equalizers for their badly outnumbered and out-trained conventional forces. The U.S., conversely, continues to upgrade its arsenal and is beginning to talk about using sea-launched missiles -- with which the target nation has a difficult time differentiating between a conventional and nuclear attack -- tactical nuclear weapons. This is a destabilizing mistake.
All of this taken together with the new National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy and the Nuclear Posture Review -- alongside a $700 billion defense budget and a proposed 30 percent cut to diplomacy, development and foreign aid -- gives any observer a feeling that we are building a case for a great-power war. What can we do to avoid drifting toward a potentially devastating global conflict?
Listen better. Watching leaders from all sides talk past each other in last weekend reinforced the need for simply reducing the “transmit side” of the communication path in favor of receiving more. In Munich, we heard Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko describe the war in southeast Ukraine in diametrically opposed ways. Poroshenko brandished a battered EU flag like a cape, begging Europe “to keep the door open” for his nation. Lavrov smoothly blamed it all on NATO. Neither heard a word the other said. Repairing this disconnect can occur not only through formal diplomatic channels, but through so-called “track 2” diplomacy via academic institutions, think tanks, conferences, sports diplomacy and other, softer means. And despite all the frustrations with the U.N., it at least provides a coherent forum to talk. As Churchill supposedly said, to jaw-jaw is better than war-war. He was right.
Focus on arms control. All nations have a vested interest in arms control, which reduces cost, builds confidence and increases transparency. While several major efforts are stalled, including a follow-on to the START series of treaties, we can begin with relatively “small ball” discussions on such things as maritime patrols and interactions at sea; procedures to reduce the possibility of collisions between military jets; demilitarizing the Arctic; and managing space-based offensive systems. We have serious experts in this area, from former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry to former NATO Deputy Secretary General Ambassador Sandy Vershbow. Use them.
Strengthen nuclear counterproliferation. As Secretary of Defense James Mattis has said, there is no such thing as a tactical nuclear weapon. The nuclear powers must band together to avoid allowing more nations to join the nuclear club. This will require a combination of intelligence-sharing; interdiction of radioactive material; embargoing nuclear knowledge and scientist travel; and U.N. sanctions. In the end, we can probably defuse any conventional confrontation; once a conflict goes nuclear, it could become impossible to contain.
Think strategically. While the Donald Trump administration has produced several new high-level documents, it has yet to construct a meaningful strategy to deal with three crucial global challenges: the Middle East (with its complex overlay of religious and geopolitical infighting); China and the South China Sea (where China will continue to play the long game); and Russia (where we must, over time, persuade Putin that the future of his nation lies with the West). National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and his bright team should take up those three topics next.
Be ready. If all our efforts to create the best strategy, focus on containing the nuclear options, and diplomacy fail, we must be ready to fight. Mattis gets that, and the Department of Defense under his leadership will be ready to “fight tonight.” That capability is an important part of deterrence, of course.
All of this must be done while we avoid a war on the Korean Peninsula, where -- fortunately -- our interests align better with China’s. As we emerge from the cocoon of the Olympics, the tensions will return in Korea. In a reversal of the old cliché, we have been in the stage where it will “get better before it gets worse again.” One hopes we can work positively with China and perhaps build on that going forward as we face larger, more complex disagreements on trade, cyberpower and East Asia.
When Marx said that history always repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce, he meant that it would be farcical not to learn from our prior errors, in this case of a century ago. Clark, in “Sleepwalkers,” sees what is coming our way quite clearly, saying, “Since the end of the Cold War, a system of global bipolar stability has made way for a more complex and unpredictable array of forces, including declining empires and rising powers -- a state of affairs that invites comparison with the Europe of 1914.”
The chairman of the Munich Security Conference, German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger, summed it up by saying simply, “The world has moved closer -- much too close -- to the brink of major interstate war.” It is like 1914 again -- except we have nuclear weapons. We need strong leaders who see that we still have a chance to wake up from this dream.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former military commander of NATO, and dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His most recent book is "Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World's Oceans."
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