Washington’s vow to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty poses again the question: Who will save us from America?
If complacency is the enemy of progress hubris is the harbinger of regress. And it is hubris of the most egregious kind that describes the unconscionable decision of the Trump administration to affect the unilateral withdrawal of the US from the 1987 INF nuclear treaty, one that at the time of its establishment Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev pointed out was “the first agreement in history on the mutually agreed destruction of an entire class of nuclear weapons.”
Considering that prior to the treaty the US and the Soviet Union had over 2,600 short, medium and intermediate range missiles pointed at one another ready to be unleashed, Gorbachev’s statement was an exercise in understatement. The deployment of such a vast arsenal of nuclear hardware was tantamount to a dagger pointed at the heart of humanity itself, placing it but a hair trigger away from annihilation given the low margin for error such weapons carry when it comes to false alarms and warnings of imminent attack.
One incident in particular, which may well have resulted in the very mutual assured destruction (MAD) the Cold War nuclear arms race was supposed to avert in the warped thinking of its adherents, is worthy of recall.
On September 26, 1983, a Soviet early warning satellite indicated that five US nuclear missiles had just been launched. It occurred at a point when tensions between Moscow and Washington were extraordinarily tense. Just three weeks earlier the Soviets had mistakenly shot down a South Korean passenger aircraft that had veered off course and penetrated 200 miles into Soviet airspace, whereupon it failed to respond to warnings and attempts to make contact.
All 269 people on board the aircraft, dozens of US citizens among them, perished.
The resulting fallout, during which US President Ronald Reagan described the downing of the aircraft as a “barbaric act”, only ensured that both sides, already locked in a proxy war in Afghanistan, were primed for escalation.
This context illuminates in glory one man’s decision not to respond in the prescribed manner to the warning of a nuclear missile launch against the Soviet Union. His name was Stanislav Petrov, he was a lieutenant colonel with Soviet Air Defence Forces, and perhaps more than any single man at any single moment in history he carried the fate of the world on his shoulders.
Utilizing clear-eyed logic, Petrov realized that a US first strike would consist of far more than the five missiles the Soviet satellite indicated had just been launched and were at that moment wending their way eastwards. It was a realization that marked the difference between refusing to reach for the phone providing a direct line to the Soviet high command to warn of an imminent attack, as per the procedure, and instead placing a call to the relevant department to report a system malfunction.
Never mind the martial achievements of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar or Napoleon Bonaparte, this single act of human defiance of a warning of nuclear attack on the part of a hitherto anonymous lieutenant colonel, during a period of high tension between East and West, is more worthy of exaltation and reverence in the world’s historical memory.
Regardless, the very fact that such a thin line of human interpretation and margin for error could have been allowed to determine the fate of current and future generations was proof positive of the intolerable folly of a nuclear arms race that was out of control. It left no doubt that if allowed to continue unchecked it would inevitably end in Armageddon – unless, that is, meaningful steps were taken to bridge a hitherto unbridgeable gulf between both contending ideological blocs.
Those meaningful steps manifested in the 1987 INF treaty, thrashed out between Gorbachev and Reagan after a protracted period of negotiation over a number of years. It was a rare instance of diplomacy triumphing over force and coercion, allowing the world to breathe far easier in consequence, especially in light of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident reminding Europe that it and not the United States would be the primary casualty should the unspeakable ever come to pass.
Considering that in Reagan the West had its cold warrior ultimatus, a B-movie actor for whom the world was reduced to an end of days Manichean struggle between good and evil, and given that in the same period Britain’s Maggie Thatcher was his more than able anti-Soviet ideological twin, the signing of the INF treaty is rendered even more laudable as a diplomatic triumph.
Bringing things back to 2018, Washington’s bombast and waving around of US military might is redolent of a low rent mafia hoodlum wielding a pair of brass knuckles to shake down the local corner store. It proves that though the Soviet Union may have disappeared from the crass stupidity of your average Western ideologue, when their hegemonic fantasies are given free rein it most assuredly has not.
Because make no mistake about it, the 45th president’s announcement that he intends unpicking the work of one of his predecessors, Ronald Reagan, a president Trump has previously touted as his guiding light, is one arrived at not on the basis of security or defense but unipolarity.
The arguments employed to justify this demarche are fatuous in the extreme. Prime among them is the claim that Russia was already in breach of the INF treaty with the alleged development of a new intermediate nuclear missile system. This, however, constitutes a preposterous abstraction, in that it fails to confront the reality of declining relations between East and West of late.
As far back as 2007, at the Munich Security Conference of the same year, Vladimir Putin warned of the folly of triumphalism and its reflection in a unipolar world as an acceptable and sustainable state of affairs.
In the speech he delivered, Putin made clear the dangers of a hegemonic status quo:
We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law. And independent legal norms are, as a matter of fact, coming increasingly closer to one state’s legal system. One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations.
The Russian leader’ speech was delivered in the wake of the destruction and dismemberment of Yugoslavia, the disastrous invasion of Afghanistan and the wholesale destruction of Iraq, out of which not democracy but the hellish forces of Salafi-jihadism was hatched. It came four years prior to Libya’s funeral in 2011, unleashing a refugee wave of such elemental size it has set the region back decades, while plunging Europe into a political crisis from which it is still to emerge.
Then in 2016, the US went ahead with its plan, years in the making, of establishing an anti-ballistic missile defence system in Eastern Europe, one which the Russians have pointed out can easily be converted from the function of missile defense to missile delivery. From Moscow’s standpoint, this development signaled, once and for all, that the only terms of peaceful co-existence on offer from Washington were those handed down by diktat from an empire to an unruly vassal.
Taking everything in the round, at some point Washington’s European ‘allies’ are going to have to confront the salient truth that rather than enhance or ensure Europe’s security, the determination of the US to hang on to the unipolarity and hegemony it has enjoyed since the early 1990s actively imperils it.
It is also high time that the former states of the former Soviet Union and bloc – Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic republics – are made clear that their historical grievances with Moscow will not be exercised at the rest of Europe’s expense.
In other words, this is not a game.