With the U.S. deciding to walk out of the Open Skies agreement, the U.S. is signaling to the world that it intends to return to days of Pax Americana that existed post-World War II, when it was the sole possessor of nuclear weapons. It has already walked out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002 under George W. Bush, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty under Trump. The only nuclear arms control treaty that still remains in place is the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which provides a rough limit and parity on the U.S. and Russia’s nuclear arsenals. Its days also seem to be numbered, as it expires on February 5, 2021, leaving very little time for any serious discussion.
The Trump administration is now considering a resumption of nuclear tests, which would be in violation of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, or CTBT. Is this yet another treaty destined for the waste paper basket? This is apart from other nuclear restraint treaties that the U.S. signed with other states such as North Korea and Iran, and subsequently tore up unilaterally, prompting the view that the U.S. is no longer capable of upholding treaties.
Marshall Billingslea, who is the U.S. official arms control negotiator, has talked about how the U.S. intends to spend Russia and China “into oblivion,” as it had done with the Soviet Union earlier. Obviously, as an arms control negotiator, he is a fitting successor to John Bolton, whose chief claim to fame is wielding a hammer to smash all arms control agreements.
The U.S. is also weaponizing space, and has a new Space Command. Last year, Trump, speaking in the Pentagon, said, “a space-based missile defense layer… [is] going to be a very, very big part of our defense and, obviously, of our offense.”
So what is the Open Skies agreement? The treaty permits all its 35 signatories—the U.S., Russia and other NATO allies—to fly over each other’s territories. Effectively, it allows official military reconnaissance flights.
So why does the U.S. want to exit a treaty that makes it possible to launch surveillance flights over Russia? This is a question that even military experts are hard put to answer. One reason given is that the U.S. has complete imaging capabilities over Russia using its satellites, and does not need old-fashioned aircraft-based methods. Therefore, the U.S. is denying Russia overflights over its territory in the belief that Russia will not be able to match the U.S. space-based surveillance capabilities. And if it tries to match the U.S., it is back to the Billingslea-Trump game; the U.S. will win the new weapons war, or else move to an economic war. But war it is either way.
The U.S. also has a second target motivating it to walk out of the Open Skies agreement. European countries are very much a part of this agreement, just not the U.S. The U.S. did not even talk to its NATO allies before making the decision to abandon this agreement. The U.S. wants to deny any strategic independence to its NATO allies. If the Open Skies agreement now fails, as Russia has no incentive to offer other NATO countries overflights when it has none over the U.S., other NATO allies will be even more dependent on the U.S. for information. This is a strike as much against its own NATO allies as against Russia.
During the initial negotiations on the New START, Trump and Billingslea are talking about bringing in China in order to limit its nuclear arsenal as well. This was also one of the arguments given when the U.S. abandoned the INF Treaty.
Consider the respective nuclear arsenals of countries. Currently, the United States and Russia have more than 6,000 total nuclear warheads each, while China has about 300, according to the Arms Control Association’s factsheet. So any agreement that brings in China can only increase its voluntary limit and not reduce it! Just for the record, France also has 300, with the UK at 200, and India and Pakistan around 150 each. Israel has about 100, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) has about 30.
In summary, the U.S. believes that since the ’90s, it has been and continues to be the sole global hegemon. Any arms control treaty hinders the exercise of its military might. It recognizes that it can no longer control the global economy, where China is already in the process of overtaking the U.S., give or take a decade or two. A trade agreement that follows the rules, even if the rules were put in place in the ’90s by the U.S. and its allies in the World Trade Organization (WTO), no longer helps the U.S. Faced with competition not only from China, but a range of other countries, the U.S. has fallen back on its military power as its key “bargaining” strategy: Agree to what it says or else. And if any country tries to match the U.S. militarily, the U.S. will bankrupt them as it did with the Soviet Union.
Historians Richard Lebow and Janice Stein have pointed out that the collapse of the Soviet Union was not due to its military competition with the U.S. Its defense budget did not increase in Reagan’s Star Wars years. Neither is Russia willing to surrender to the United States. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has made it clear that Russia will not accept that the U.S. can become the global overlord as it did during the Yeltsin years, and dictate to it and other countries.
The U.S. change in tack with respect to China is part of what is now being called a hybrid war—military threats coupled with economic actions—to inflict enough damage that China is forced to sue for peace, accepting its subordinate status.
That is why China and Russia have come together. China’s economic strength and Russia’s military capabilities provide formidable opposition to U.S. dominance. Russia’s technological strength in missiles, submarines, and radar has always been cutting-edge. The S-400 defense shields with radar arrays and defensive missiles are still the best in the world, and that is the reason why even U.S. allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia are procuring them. China is likely already the world leader in quantum communications and is set to overtake the U.S. in artificial intelligence within the next five years. So when it comes to competition, China and Russia are not as far behind as the U.S. seems to believe. And the U.S. policies in the last 30 years have cemented Russia-China ties at a much deeper level than in the past.
What options, then, do Russia and China have? Russia and China do not plan to copy the U.S. strategy of global dominance, or engage in the game of one-upmanship the U.S. is playing. For Russia and China, the ability to inflict sufficient damage on the U.S. is deterrence enough. So they are not going to make the mistake of matching the U.S. military spending dollar for dollar. Putin’s strategy is to develop weapons that can inflict maximum damage at a minimum cost—in other words, develop a strategy for asymmetric war. This is the reason behind the six new Russian weapons that Putin unveiled last year: from hypersonic weapons to a new generation of ballistic missiles.
The difference between the two approaches is their strategic visions. For the U.S., it is spelled out in its various strategic documents: it needs to militarily dominate every region in the world. Any country that challenges the U.S., even in controlling its coastal waters, is a revisionist power. This requires not strategic parity but overwhelming superiority, or force projection in any global theater. In today’s day and age, this is well beyond any country’s military reach.
The world is entering perhaps the most dangerous period it ever has, not just because of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. The nuclear arms race is taking place with the U.S. belief that it is winnable. Abandoning all arms control agreements with one excuse or the other is not simply the aberration of a Trump or a Bush, but very much a part of U.S. exceptionalism.
The future of all nations is either surrender to the rule of the hegemon, or allow a global nuclear arms race. This is Trump’s vision, enunciated by his arms control negotiator. It has consequences for all of us. Why then, are all other countries silent? This is why there is an urgent need for the global peace movement to revive. People everywhere have to fight for peace. It is not just Russia or China or the United States at risk, but the whole of humanity.