Events are unfolding at a quickening pace. Facing an alarming escalation in tensions around the world, we are looking to our most respected and renowned thought leaders for an honest assessment of both U.S. foreign and military policy to offer their most current thoughts and insights. We know they have some ideas for improving the prospects for peace. Professor Klare’s responses below of are not edited but exactly as he provided.
Michael T. Klare is a Five Colleges professor of Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts; defense correspondent of The Nation magazine; and author of The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources (2012), Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy (2009), and Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Dependence on Imported Petroleum (2000). He has a BA and MA from Columbia University, and a PhD from Union Institute & University.
The questions here are not philosophical or abstract. They focus on the realities of the international power struggle unfolding in real time. They directly address the role of the U.S. in the escalating tensions and its capacity to reduce them. We also probe the role of everyday citizens in affecting the relationship the U.S. now has and will have with the rest of the world community.
Here is what Michael T. Klare had to say.
Q. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has recently put the hands of the Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds before midnight. Midnight means all out war, probably nuclear holocaust. This is the closest it has every been. Do you agree with this dire assessment?
A. Well, the closest we’ve come until now was during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. I just read the book “Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis” by Martin Sherwin, and as he demonstrates, we came perilously close to nuclear war back then. In fact, he shows that it was sheer dumb luck that we weren’t engulfed in a nuclear holocaust at that time. But I would say we’re moving close to that point today, because of growing tensions between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine and the U.S. and China over Taiwan. Either of those conflicts could produce a Cuban Missile Crisis-like event—and this time we may not be so lucky.
Q. The U.S. always portrays itself as the greatest force on the planet for peace, justice, human rights, racial equality, etc. Polls tell us that most other nations actually regard the U.S. as the greatest threat to stability. What in your view is the truth here?
A. In my view, instability today is largely created by the three-way military rivalry between the U.S., China, and Russia. All three are nuclear-armed states seeking to expand their geopolitical advantage at the expense of the others, and are willing to employ military means in doing so. All three assert they have legitimate reasons for this—China to restore its legitimate role as the dominant power in Asia, Russia to restore its dominant position in Eastern Europe, and the US seeking to retain its role as the world’s preserver of global norms and stability—but all three are acting in a provocative and destabilizing manner—China by militarizing contested islands in the South China Sea, Russia by threatening the independence of Ukraine, the U.S. by creating an anti-China containment network in Asia.
Q. Here’s a chicken-or-egg question: The U.S. accuses both Russia and China of rapidly expanding their military capabilities, claiming its own posturing and increase in weaponry is a response to its hostile adversaries, Russia and China. Both Russia and China claim they are merely responding to intimidation and military threats posed by the U.S. What’s your view? Do Russia and China have imperial ambitions or are they just trying to defend themselves against what they see as an increasingly aggressive U.S. military?
A. As I indicate, all three are acting out of aggressive designs of their own. China has been kept down for centuries by the imperial powers, and now seeks to restore what it views as its rightful role as the dominant power in Asia, and recover control over the rebel province of Taiwan. This appears “aggressive” to the U.S., but “natural” to the Chinese, and is no different than America’s rise as a great power in the late 19th century. Likewise, Russia feels that it was taken advantage of by the Western powers when it was weak, in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR, when NATO expanded eastward, right up to its borders, and now seeks to reverse that moment of weakness by restoring its dominance over its western neighbors. Again, this appears “aggressive” to the U.S., but “legitimate” to Russia.
Q. The U.S. always denies that it has imperial ambitions. Most unbiased experts say that by any objective standards, the U.S. is an empire — indeed the most powerful, sprawling empire in history. Does the U.S. have to be an empire to be successful in the world and effectively protect and serve its citizenry?
A. Whether or not the U.S. is an “empire” is a matter for historians and political scientists to debate. It is not an empire like the British or French or ancient Roman empires, under which it possesses and administers colonies for the purpose of resource extraction. It does, however, see itself as possessing a global world-shaping role—the “indispensable nation,” as Madeleine Albright once put it. In addition, U.S. military doctrine calls for fighting potential adversaries on their soil, not ours, so this requires maintaining bases all over the world, as this has an imperial-like character. The problem with this, as we discovered in Afghanistan and Iraq, as that the peoples in these countries would mostly prefer living without an American military presence, and are prepared to fight to keep us out—and the longer we stay, the more (lethal) resistance we encounter.
Q. The highest ranking commanders of the U.S. military recently sounded the alarm. They have concluded that the U.S.—widely regarded as the most formidable military power in history—can’t defeat either Russia or China in a war. These military commanders are saying we need to dramatically increase our military capabilities. What do you make of this claim and the resulting demand for more DOD spending?
A. Talk to any American military officer in person and they will tell you that neither the Chinese nor the Russian military is any match for the U.S. military. This is all about extracting taxpayer funds from Congress
Q. In 2009, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton announced a reset with Russia, heralding greater cooperation and understanding. By 2014, Obama had made a sharp reversal. A sweeping regime of sanctions has since been imposed on Russia to cripple its economy. Hillary Clinton and the Democrats now relentlessly demonize Russia and Putin, blaming them for every imaginable ill. Both in the media and from official pronouncements by government officials, Russia has become the favorite whipping boy for both the U.S. and its “special friend”, Great Britain. Why? What happened?
A. Well, the U.S. foreign policy elite—the “blob”—views China, not Russia as America’s leading adversary, and for a simple reason—they fear the rise of an equal military-economic-technological power that could challenge Washington’s position at the head of the global rules-setting tables. As for Russia, they resent the fact that Moscow has not deteriorated into a backward Third World country, as they predicted in 1992, but is challenging the West in Europe and the Middle East.
Q. The number of spy missions, nuclear-armed bomber flights, and war games near Russia’s borders have vastly increased over the past year. Same with China. Is all of this just business-as-usual geopolitical posturing? Or does it represent a dangerous escalation and a new ominous direction in U.S. strategic positioning? What is the justification for what Russia and China see as provocations and aggressiveness, if not actual preparation for a war?
A. The military on all three sides seek to demonstrate in this manner that they are prepared to go to war if the other side behaves in an egregious manner, thinking this will deter such behavior. History suggests, however, that it could just as easily lead to miscalculation, misinterpretation, accident, and unintended escalation. Consider, for example, the onset of WWI.
Q. Between the FONOPS in the South China Sea and the recently expressed enthusiasm for Taiwan’s independence, the risk of military conflict with China keeps increasing. Where is this headed? If People’s Republic of China decides to use military force for full reunification of Taiwan, do you see the U.S. going to war in an attempt to prevent it?
A. This is my big concern. I fear that the “blob” is signalling to the Taiwanese leadership that they can declare independence with impunity because the U.S. will come to their aid if China intervenes. I don’t for sure if this will occur, but it certainly increases the risk that the Taiwanese will declare independence precipitously and that China will intervene, possibly leading to a U.S. counter-invasion, and WWIII.
Q. In a democracy, at least in theory citizens have a say in all matters of public policy. Yet, in the end none of the recent military campaigns and undeclared wars seem to achieve much popular favor or support. What is and what should be the role of everyday citizens in determining the foreign policy and military priorities of the country? Or are such matters better left to the “experts”?
A. If we leave decisions of war and peace to the foreign policy elites, the chances are we will have war—very possibly nuclear war. So I favor empowering the public to play a more active role in the debate over foreign and military policy.