John Bellamy Foster, John Ross, Deborah Veneziale, and Vijay Prashad, Washington’s New Cold War: A Socialist Perspective (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2023), 108 pages, $15.
The “singular reality” (my phrase) on display here is the imagined reality in the mind’s eye of Beltline/Pentagon global strategists. Few readers will be surprised at the cravings of neoconservatives to control every inch of the planet. Many readers will be surprised to learn about the bipartisan nature of the vision and strategy, and the wide shifts of heretofore accepted perspectives, following the collapse of the East Bloc. Most shocking for readers of this volume will likely be the apparent embrace of the huge dangers of nuclear war now staring us in the face.
Perhaps it is best to start in the middle of the story, and with economics before politics. Following the meltdown of the US financial sector in 2008, and in the face of a seemingly unstoppable growth of the Chinese economy, large parts of the world economy began to shift gears ominously—from the US standpoint, that is. The creation of a BRICS block and the widening sense in the global South that the dollar might no longer remain a reliable currency, accompanied by the accelerating Chinese pace in technological sophistication as well as economic volume. The prize that had, for a decade or two, seemed so temptingly close, appeared to be slipping away. The weaponization of the dollar did indeed successfully freeze a trillion dollars in Russian assets (along with those in a number of other countries, including Venezuela and Iran) but with something like the opposite of the desired results, weakening the dollar still further.
A multitude of other factors complicate any picture, but within the world of fiercely competitive global commerce, a kind of multi-polarity had already been effectively reached, ideologies notwithstanding. China was rapidly becoming Germany’s main trade partner, to point up one very sore and revealing spot in Washington’s expectations. Various Asian nations, across the usual political grounds, had begun organizing their own trading bloc, blatantly in the face of US resistance. Many African and Latin American leaders likewise showed less and less willingness to follow Washington’s lead on strategies for their own economies.
Thus a dilemma, or series of dilemmas, piled up, one after another. If a clash of ideologies has traditionally driven various wings of US politics, the stable or even predictable lines of contrast between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, have become, in important ways, harder to discern.
One of these shifts is most obvious, if sometimes overlooked because of its bipartisan character. Looking back now to the early 1990s, we are reminded of the formulations of Paul Wolfowitz, formerly an aide to super-hawk Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (best remembered in Congress as the “Senator from Boeing” and AFL chief George Meany’s favorite for president in 1972). According to a crucial document of the years shortly after the East Bloc collapse, Wolfowitz insisted that the multi-polar world forced upon the US by the Cold War and accompanying colonial challenges had now come to an end. The US had the opportunity and every reason to nail down total control. Nominally a Democrat, Wolfowitz had since become a favorite advisor of Republicans and for good reasons. “Wolfowitz of Arabia,” a New York Times acronym gained and lost in record time during the presidency of George W. Bush, personally symbolized the expectation of victory in Iraq leading to the near-time collapse of all unfriendly regimes in the Middle East, i.e. those contesting US leadership of the region.
The larger global strategy had already been envisioned through a crucial first step, the advance of US hegemony into Eurasia. Zbigniew Brzezinski, erstwhile advisor to President Jimmy Carter, made this very clear when sketching out the “grand chessboard” of the strategic future, also a few years after the fall of the East Bloc. The expansion of NATO eastward, most especially encompassing the Ukraine, would, according to Brezinski, complete a task already advancing rapidly with the collapsed Russian economy under the aegis of the US favorite (Time came close to calling him an appointee), Boris Yeltsin. Bill Clinton himself had gotten the ball rolling more swiftly, accomplishing through the Balkan Wars a larger NATO, more firmly controlled from Washington. The new Russia would, in this view, recede forever from strategic rivalry and more than likely, be broken up into any number of states more readily controllable by the West.
This initiative also required a military backup: an advance in nuclear strategy. A year after Putin announced in 2007 that a unipolar world would be unacceptable to Russia, a NATO Summit in Bucharest made clear that the inclusion of the Ukraine had become highly desireable, even inevitable in time. “Unipolar” and “multipolar” now and most terrifyingly, had both become potentially deadly conceptions of world order.
Historian E. P. Thompson, a global peace leader, had warned decades earlier that the placement of Cruise missiles in Western Europe marked a new and increasingly dangerous phase of weapons rivalry. In a massive game of “chicken,” strategists had begun speaking more about “first strike” as an imagined possibility. The doctrine of MAD, mutual assured destruction, was an acceptable if inevitably short term solution to the threat of Armageddon. But Reagan’s Star Wars finalized a strategic shift already underway with Jimmy Carter.
“Counterforce” strategy, that is to say the deployment of American weapons specifically as a first strike, would as envisioned wipe out Russian nukes before they left the ground, while nuclear submarines would also be destroyed before their misiles could fire. Anti-ballastic missile systems would finish off the job by picking off those few missiles that the other side managed to launch. Thompson called this prospect the “Long Afternoon,” beyond which lay only societies in ruin, their futures hopeless poisoned.
The Chinese, a newly-emerging opponent of the early twenty-first century, had remained in these calculations hopelessly behind. Now, amidst the economic race for superiority, the Chinese suddenly aspired to catch up to military strategies as well. The Pentagon and the national security advisors quietly advised that the US had now reached the verge of nuclear primacy, i.e., first strike-capability, but the advantage was likely to remain for a limited time only. That is to say: the Armageddon-like strategy could, but probably only for in the near future, be wielded, either by action…or by threat, “threat” being naturally the preferred means of maintaining an otherwise downward-slipping US global control.
Daniel Ellsberg wrote eloquently that he considered the US strategy to be highly dangerous nonsense. In time, the Russians and Chinese would catch up anyway, as they seem to be doing with their own technologies of horror.
Thus the Ukraine and the Standoff. Here we are today, apparently amidst of a test of wills. That is to say, we face a test of firepower, and a test of something described more and more as West vs East, as if the rest of the planet had remained the bystanders that they seemed to be in the high days of the Cold War. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the US is preparing, even looking toward a confrontation of some kind with a badly weakened Russia and an ever-stronger China. The world is a dangerous place, and the rhetoric increasingly threatens to boil over to something worse than words.