New Cold War: Arsenal of Democracy or Simply an Arsenal?

Yves here. The older fogeys among the readership may remember that when the USSR unexpectedly fell, ex post facto analysts attributed it to Reagan era programs, including Star Wars, forcing the USSR into even higher levels of military spending that wound up being crippling. Are we going to to this to ourselves with our new Cold War fever?

By William Astore. Originally published at TomDispatch

In certain quarters in this country, Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has generated enthusiasm for a new cold war. At the New York Times, Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin have been described as “children of the [old] Cold War” now involved in a “face off,” an “eyeball to eyeball” confrontation harkening back to John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev contesting Berlin and Cuba in “dramatic fashion” 60 years ago. (Never mind that the “drama” over Cuba nearly led to nuclear war and the possible end of most life on Earth.) Such breathless accounts make me think of the role Slim Pickens played as Major Kong in Stanley Kubrick’s famed film Dr. Strangelove, giddy with resolve, even relief of a kind, now that he and his B-52 crew are finally headed for nuclear combat with the Russkies.

Whatever else one might say of the crisis in Ukraine, the new cold war dreamscape that Washington think tanks and the Pentagon helped promulgate over the last decade against Russia or China or both is here to stay. Consider that a calamity in its own right. The end of America’s failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the disastrous results of America’s Global War on Terror launched amid a barrage of lies and self-praise, might indeed have left an opening, however slight, for a shift away from colossal military budgets and creeping militarization.

Russia’s ill-planned and immoral invasion of Ukraine marks the definitive end of that possibility, however small it might have been. Putin’s actions, whatever their motivation and justification, are being seized upon by the military-industrial-congressional complex as proof positive that Pentagon budgets, already in the stratosphere, must soar higher yet. For so many of the Putin-haters (and I’m no fan), his destructive actions supposedly demonstrate why the U.S. must be prepared to double down in kind. 

That, of course, means yet more weapons production and sales globally for the country that’s already the planet’s leading purveyor of such products. It also means more bellicose rhetoric, and ultimately more militarism, because that’s all Putin and his authoritarian ilk will allegedly ever understand (as is sadly true of so many in Washington as well). Consider all this a peculiar form of American madness, akin to the idea that a guy with a gun, or better yet, lots of guys with lots of guns, the more powerful the better, are the sanest way to prevent gun violence.

Thought about a certain way, in taking such an approach, our government and, by extension, the American people are ceding our autonomy of thought and action to “bad actors” like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. For every war Putin launches, America, so we’re told, must respond with yet more weapons sales, troop deployments, debilitating sanctions, and above all, astronomically higher military spending. For every aircraft carrier the Chinese build, or any new expansion onto yet another tiny island in the South China Sea, the U.S. military must “pivot” harder toward Asia, while building yet more staggeringly expensive ships of its own. As possibilities, disengagement and détente go unmentioned. “Peace” isn’t a word American presidents favor anymore. As a result, even modest military moves by Putin and Xi are essentially guaranteed to drive the U.S. economy yet deeper into militarized debt. (As if $6 trillion already squandered on the disastrous war on terror wasn’t pricey enough.) After all, full-spectrum dominance over the global battlespace, a fantasy in the “best” of times, and a new cold war won’t come cheap, a fact that U.S. weapons manufacturers are surely banking on.

Even before the recent Russian invasion, estimates for the fiscal year 2023 Pentagon budget had risen to $770 billion or even $800 billion. With Russian tanks now rolling through (or stalled in) Ukraine, you can bet your bottom dollar that $800 billion will be the floor, not the ceiling for that future budget and the Pentagon’s 2023 demands from Congress. This country, we’re once again hearing, is to be the arsenal of democracy (to steal a phrase from the World War II era). But count on this: if you’re not careful an arsenal of democracy can easily enough devolve into little more than an arsenal. And that time, I suspect, is now.

The World Is Not Enough

Don’t misunderstand me: I condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s a horror and an obvious disaster in the making. That said, Russia may have a super nuclear arsenal, but it’s not a superpower, despite all those Cold War memories of ours, nor does its attack on Ukraine, in and of itself, pose a major threat to our own national security. Indeed, experts around the world have been predicting for decades that NATO expansion, exacerbated by U.S. meddling in Ukraine, could provoke Vladimir Putin to launch just such a war. In short, Russia’s invasion was indeed predictable, even if not faintly excusable.

Nor are the Russian president’s designs on Ukraine and his quest for greater power in eastern Europe historically surprising. In fact, serious self-reflection should lead us to the obvious conclusion that the scale of Russia’s ambitions, objectionable as they might be, are also limited compared to ours.

Again, Russia remains a distinctly regional power, while the United States still fancies itself to be the last remaining superpower on planet Earth. No other country comes close to the scale of our global ambitions (and they’re higher still, if you count this country’s Trump-era Space Force with its vision that the heavens are but the next “warfighting domain” for us to dominate). In other words, in this century, when it came to our military, the world was not enough. All realms were to be under its command: land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace. Note, in fact, that we have a military force or special military command for all of them and our leaders simply take for granted that such dominance is to be ours and no one else’s.

Think about it. Of all the countries on Earth, only the U.S. divides the entire globe into military commands run by four-star generals and admirals; only America has 750 or so military bases scattered across every continent except Antarctica; only America sees a country — I’m thinking here of Ukraine (although not so long ago it could have been Afghanistan or Iraq), roughly 5,000 miles away across a vast ocean, as its legitimate eastern flank. At the same time, only this country sees a body of water like the South China Sea as a lake for its Navy to navigate and dominate, as if it were part of our coastal waters. 

Imagine, for a moment, that Russia or China had an America Command, an AMERCOM. Imagine that Russian advisors were training and equipping Canadian troops, while Chinese aircraft carrier task forces regularly sailed the Gulf of Mexico. As Americans, we, of course, can’t imagine such things and yet that’s the world we inhabit, even if in reverse.

Most of us seem to consider the imperial ambitions of this country, including the eventual expansion of NATO into Ukraine and Georgia and the continued deployment of powerful aircraft carrier battlegroups near the coast of China, as benign, uncontroversial evidence of our military resolve. Under the circumstances, it shouldn’t be that hard to recognize that others on this planet might not feel quite the same way.

That America’s pursuit of global reach and global power would be seen as a challenge, indeed a provocation, by a regional power like Russia or one with full-scale imperial ambitions, even if of a largely economic sort, like China with its trillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative, should surprise no one. Under the circumstances, it was inevitable that, sooner or later, this country’s continued pursuit of full-spectrum dominance would produce a new cold war, as certain American experts predicted, and some seemed to desire.  Think of the chaotic and disturbed world we’re now living in as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, as well as a rare “triumph” of long-term strategic planning by certain elements within the national security state. What they wished for, they got.  Today, it should be all too obvious that the results are anything but pleasing.

Your Role as a Loyal American in the New Cold War

My fellow Americans, in this new cold war of ours, the national security state expects both all too much and all too little of you. Let’s start with the little. It doesn’t expect you to enlist in the military if you’re rich or have “other priorities” (as former Vice President Dick Cheney said about the Vietnam War). It doesn’t expect you to pay close attention to our wars, let alone foreign policy. You don’t even have to vote. It does, however, expect you to cheer at the right times, be “patriotic,” wave the flag, gush about America, and celebrate its fabulous, militarized exceptionalism.

To enlist in this country’s cheerleading squad, which is of course God’s squad, you might choose to wear a flag lapel pin and affix a “Support Our Troops” sticker to your SUV. You should remind everyone that “freedom isn’t free” and that “God, guns, and guts” made America great. If the godly empire says Ukraine is a worthy friend, you might add a blue-and-yellow “frame” to your Facebook profile photo. If that same empire tells you to ignore ongoing U.S. drone strikes in Somalia and U.S. support for an atrocious Saudi war in Yemen, you are expected to comply. Naturally, you’ll also be expected to pay your taxes without complaint, for how else are we to buy all the weapons and wage all the wars that America needs to keep the peace?

Naturally, certain people need to be collectively despised in our very own version of George Orwell’s “Two Minutes Hate.” So, when Putin’s visage comes on the screen, or Xi’s, or Kim Jong-un’s, or whoever the enemy du jour is, be prepared to express your outrage. Be prepared to treat them as aliens, almost incomprehensible in their barbarity, as if, in fact, they were Klingons in the original Star Trek series. As a peaceful member of the “Federation,” dominated by the United States, you must, of course, reject those Klingon nations and their warrior vision of life, their embrace of might-makes-right, choosing instead the logic, balance, and diplomacy of America’s enlightened State Department (backed up, of course, by the world’s greatest military).

Again, little is expected of you (so far) except your obedience, which should be enthusiastic rather than reluctant. Yet whether you know it or not, much is expected of you as well. You must surrender any hopes and dreams you’ve harbored of a fairer, kinder, more equitable and just society. For example, military needs in the new cold war simply won’t allow us to “build back better.” Forget about money for childcare, a $15 federal minimum wage, affordable healthcare for all, better schools, or similar “luxuries.” Maybe in some distant future (or some parallel universe), we’ll be able to afford such things, but not when we’re faced with the equivalent of the Klingon Empire that must be stopped at any cost.

But wait! I hear some of you saying that it doesn’t have to be this way! And I agree. A better future could be imagined. A saying of John F. Kennedy’s comes to mind: “We shall be judged more by what we do at home than what we preach abroad.” What we’re currently doing at home is building more weapons, sinking more tax dollars into the Pentagon, and enriching more warrior-corporations at the expense of the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable. Where’s the democratic future in that?

Sheer military might, our leaders seem to believe, will keep them forever riding high in the saddle. Yet you can ride too high in any saddle, making the fall that’s coming that much more precipitous and dangerous.

Americans, acting in concert, could stop that fall, but not by giving our current crop of leaders a firmer grasp of the reins. Do that and they’ll just spur this nation to greater heights of military folly. No, we must have the courage to unseat them from their saddles, strip them of their guns, and corral their war horses, before they lead us into yet another disastrously unending cold war that could threaten the very existence of humanity. We need to find another way that doesn’t prioritize weapons and war, but values compromise, compassion, and comity.

At this late date, I’m not sure we can do it. I only know that we must.

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  1. Foy

    Interesting how a good article on the problems of the Military Industrial complex can still push subtle propaganda.

    Think we need more time to see if the invasion was ‘ill planned’ as the author suggests, I’m not so sure. Seem they waited to see how the civilians reacted, and then recalibrated after a few days, when they didn’t crossover. Woudn’t have been unforseen. Cauldrons now appearing to working. And then there is the assessment that only comes in the longer term.

    Also not sure that it was ‘immoral’ as there is some evidence of the Ukrainians/Azov ultranationalists getting ready to launch a big attack on the Donbass region that may have forced Putin’s hand, especially if Putin foresaw that simply protecting and liberating the Donbass region and not solve longer term existential issues for Russia re NATO and US weapons in Ukraine. It was now or never from that perspective.

    And ‘the scale of Russia’s ambitions, objectionable as they might be….” . Objectionable? Putin since 2008 has been asking for security until he is blue in the face “security is indivisible, security for one is security for all, one country cannot gain security at the expense of another, that doesn’t work and makes for a more insecure situation”. Russia has been seeking closer economic ties because they know that that should develop better security ties, wanting to work more closely with Europe. Not sure what is objectionable about that.

    Amazing how this just gets watered down and washed away.

    1. JohnA

      I agree, I certainly think when it comes to ‘morality’, there are strong grounds for ‘responsibility to protect’ the Russian speaking population of Ukraine, a line of argument much used by the Clintons. And I doubt, were Zelensky to be killed in military action, fall on his sword, or be strung up on a lamp post by Azov brigade, Putin, Lavrov or any other Russian spokesperson, would ever cackle on camera ‘we came, we saw, he died’.

    2. Sardonia

      Prefacing anything you might have to say about the Ukraine situation with “Of course, Putin is evil and this invasion is a war crime” is now required, lest you be immediately vilified as “Putin’s puppet”, and anything you have to say goes unread.

      It’s the new version of first needing to say “Of course I hate Trump, but…..”

    3. Cave Canem

      I also remember that Chinese envoy immorally distributing cookies to the rioters of January 6 in Washington DC. Oh, wait…

      1. redleg

        Maybe that’s the reason Nuland was so worried about the biolabs the other day when she was testifying in the Senate. Grandma Vicki’s cake batter is made there, now only protected by a Minnesota moose and a flying squirrel.

        1. Ashburn

          Reading the above comments makes me appreciate all the more why I subscribe to NC. After the deluge of anti-Russian propaganda in the MSM it is so refreshing to read these curated articles and then enjoy the responses by the NC commentariat.

          1. GF

            Totally agree. We watch the News Hour on PBS daily. Now we are limited to the 15 minutes of the show that isn’t about the new cold war as we refuse to watch the lies. Same with Democracy Now!. Their reporting on the war is very one sided anti-Ruskie and any interviews generally don’t provide context at all. Showing bombed apartment buildings with only Ukrainian soldiers occupying them and saying XX number of people killed not mentioning they are soldiers firing at the advancing Russian troops is not honest journalism. Also, allowing speculation about what Russia is up to militarily is not good journalism. We are not at war with Russia.

            1. Brunches with Cats

              I watch the news summary and occasionally ffwd to more. I haven’t taken the time to verify, but I could swear they’ve been showing the same fire-damaged apartment building over and over, even reusing footage of the incoming projectile and explosion — like they’re recycling stock footage, interspersed with new clips of crying young mothers, stacked up corpses, and the Brave Ordinary Citizen Resister of the Day. It’s an awful feeling to have become so cynical as to think that any and every one of those images could have been staged or outright faked.

          2. John

            I am in full agreement with the above sentiments. and would add the oft repeated statement that if Russia’s of Ukraine is a “war crime” what of Iraq et al?

    4. David in Santa Cruz

      I too found Astore’s regurgitation of the MIC propaganda line to be dissonant — even insincere.

      The evidence that I read in Russian English-language sources was that the Russian government had legitimate concerns that elements in “Ukraine” were preparing to liquidate the Donbass insurgency in order to present a better case for EU and NATO integration. It is not only President Putin and his government who see “Ukraine” as an illegitimate puppet regime oppressing the large segment of their population who are Russians with familial and economic ties — the Russian people appear to believe this as well, although they are likely more fearful of war than their leaders are. In many ways Kiev is a Russian “Jerusalem.”

      The Orwellian Military-Industrial Complex needs an “enemy” in order to justify the obscene way that the basic needs of Americans are repressed in favor of military adventurism and ever more complex yet ludicrously ineffective weapons systems, and for whatever reason Astore feels compelled to repeat this propaganda line. The Black Lives Matter and January 6 rioters had in common the grievance that their own government had told them in no uncertain terms that : You Can’t Have Nice Things.

    5. Kouros

      Is it subtle propaganda or cognitive dissonance? One never knows unless one has the ability to get into another person’s head.

  2. Hidari

    “No, we must have the courage to unseat them from their saddles, strip them of their guns”

    The problem is, who do you vote for? In a democracy, which obviously has a wide range of ideologies to choose for, not just (identical) parties, you can choose, from communist, to socialist, to social democratic, to liberal, to right, to far-right.

    But this hardly describes the United States, which has two right-wing parties, one of which is slightly more ‘liberal’ on social issues and identity politics than the other. The Green Party, the only real alternative, has been corrupted from within, and in any case, stands little chance against the DNC smear/dirty tricks machine. As Noam Chomsky pointed out many years ago, since the late 1970s, at home, you have no choice at all: simply two wings of the Business Party, both representing different strands of Capital. Abroad, as Justin Raimondo never stopped pointing out, you simply have a choice between two different wings of the War Party.

    It’s Hobson’s Choice: no choice at all.

    So, this is why things are highly unlikely to change, and we are likely to continue on our present disastrous path until someone stops us, or we finally manage to blow the planet up (with, to be honest, the latter option the most likely at the moment).

  3. Colonel Smithers

    Many thanks, Yves.

    Have readers noticed how many of the dissenters are colonels, e.g. the above author, Anne Wright, Larry Wilkerson and Pat Lang.

    Unfortunately, one has to be like David Petraeus, “an ass kissing chicken shit” as Admiral Mike Mullen called him, to prosper. It’s the same in the UK, in both the civil service and armed forces.

    The UK’s dodgy or sexed up dossier, justification for the invasion of Iraq, was compiled by ambitious civil servants who thought that echoing neo con talking points and becoming drinking buddies of Alistair Campbell was the way to prosper. The civil servants went on to have glittering careers.

    Readers in the UK may have noticed how few former servicemen have been on the airwaves. A couple of former generals and admirals have been on briefly, but they address political, not military, issues. One suspects what they think privately as former professionals may not fit the narrative.

    One hopes David chimes in.

    1. ex-PFC Chuck

      “Have readers noticed how many of the dissenters are colonels, e.g. the above author, Anne Wright, Larry Wilkerson and Pat Lang.”

      Indeed! The American military services deliberately select out people who show independent thinking tendencies. From our side of the pond you could have added to the list Douglas Macgregor, who is referred to in the first comment above, as well as the late, great mid-20th century officers David Hackworth (USA) and John Boyd (USAF). I recall reading something by B. H. Liddell Hart many years ago about a man who was widely regarded as the most competent British regimental commander of the Great War. Hart followed up with the remark, “Of course he never made general.”

      1. Colonel Smithers

        Thank you, Chuck.

        I had forgotten about MacGregor and Hackworth and have not heard of Boyd.

        That is a very good observation from Liddell Hart.

          1. Tom Stone

            Yes,the OODA loop came from John Boyd’s fertile mind, the Marines were impressed enough that they erected a statue to him at Quantico.
            However the USAF had a very different attitude toward Boyd and his teachings…They hated his guts.

        1. ex-PFC Chuck

          Colonel, if you’re a reader of military biographies you’re in for a treat with Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War. Boyd’s accomplishments were so wide ranging they can’t be easily summarized. Instead of just enjoying the back slaps and attaboys in the PX bar after a day’s training outing, he started thinking about why he was so much better at real and simulated air combat than his peers. The result was the Energy/Maneuverability Theory that codified what had previously been known by the intuitive “having the right stuff.” He went on from there influencing fighter design and in the process virtually single-handedly shoving the F-16 down the throats of the kicking & screaming USAF procurement bureaucracy. His team’s cost analysis killed the B-1 bomber, the first politically engineered major arms purchase, in the mid 70s. Sadly it resurrected during the Reagan arms build up, thus proving the viability of spreading subcontracts around the nation to the detriment of weapon effectiveness. Think F-35. After retirement, in addition to leading a reform movement that gained enough traction to put his face on the cover of Time, he turned his mental powers to strategic matters and is widely regarded as being close the league that includes Sun Tzu and Clausiwitz.

  4. Samuel Conner

    My reaction to the title was that, given the recent history of extra-legal interventions and nation-breaking, the last word, “arsenal,” could have been usefully replaced with “arson-all”.

  5. PlutoniumKun

    The key point about military spending is not how much is spent in dollar or rouble terms, but (even non MMT economists usually agree on this), how much resource displacement occurs within a society. The problem for the old Soviet Union was not that it spent too much Roubles on combat aircraft, but that far too many of its best scientists and engineers were working at Sukhoi instead of making half decent refrigerators or cars (this, incidentally, seems to be a trap the Chinese are falling into). The US is also to a large degree an autarky when it comes to military expenditure, so spending big isn’t as ‘expensive’ as it is for a country that has to import arms using hard currency. For most small countries, spending 2% of GNP on defence is a far greater economic burden than the US or Russia or China spending 4% or more.

    I don’t have figures to prove it, but my suspicion is that diverting the best and brightest engineers and scientists into developing whizzy but utterly pointless apps or Silicon Valley unicorns is far more damaging to the US’s long term economic strength. Countries like Germany and Japan are far better at making sure their best minds are put to useful tasks. At least military spending occasionally comes up with some reasonably useful spin off tech.

    1. Polar Socialist

      For smaller countries there’s also the problem of what to get with your money. Most modern weapon systems are, well, systems. To get the best out of them they require purchase of the whole expensive system, and probably building some new physical infrastructure and new networking capabilities. All to be manned with skilled, expensive specialist.

      So, a small country has to decide whether it’s a very small but very proficient army (for a very short conflict) or a bigger-but-second-tear army (for a somewhat longer conflict).

      1. The Rev Kev

        Or a country could decide to devolve defence to a more local level to make the cost of occupation prohibitively expensive and to drain the moral of the invading & occupying country. That was the system that the Swiss practiced where every man was a trained soldier and rifleman that would fight any invaders. Both Vietnam and Afghanistan also used this approach and eventually achieved their aim, the later against several empires. Come to think of it, this was how it was with much of the American Revolution where the British were being boxed up.

      2. PlutoniumKun

        Thats true, but then again smaller countries can simply reduce their ambitions and focus on specific strategic needs (see, for example, Finland or Sweden, who have highly focused militaries). For most small countries, the best strategy is just to make sure that if a bigger country wants to swallow them, they can at least put a nasty bone in their throat when doing so. This is essentially Taiwans military strategy. Thats often enough to dissuade anyone from attacking. China is, I think, falling into the US trap of thinking that a big power must, by definition, have full spectrum dominance. When that happens, defence spending rapidly becomes a self licking ice cream.

        The problem is that leaders invariably start talking about national pride, and then you get countries like Thailand buying an aircraft carrier (locals call it the Thai-tanic) or South American countries buying superannuated battleships.

        As I’ve stated here before, I’ve long believed that the easiest way to find out what the insider thinkers of a nation really believe their future holds is to see what weapons they are spending their hard currency on.

        1. Ashburn

          The reason the US can spend more on its military than the next ten countries combined is because the US holds a monopoly on the world’s reserve currency. Running massive fiscal and trade deficits for decades, and as far as the eye can see into the future, allows the US to be reckless in its pursuit of hegemony. If Michael Hudson is correct this monopoly may soon be in doubt.

        2. Kouros

          Taiwan is facing a big psychological problem though. It is quite hard to make your citizens and soldiers hate the Chinese just for ideological reasons, when your own “democracy” is very shaky, when the oligarchy is growing also in leaps and bounds, and when the other side looks and speaks the same as you?

          With Ukraine/Russia, the lines are a bit more clear-cut…And maybe this is another reason Russians decided to take the gloves off: This cousin of mine really hates me and wants me dead and is really getting in bed with my worst enemy just for the promise to have me killed sooner. The family feuds can be the worst…

      3. Hayek's Heelbiter

        I believe you mean “second-tier”, but I do like the Freudian implications of the original.

    2. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you, PK.

      When I worked as bank lobbyist, 2007 – 16, I had a meeting with a Belgian Green MEP, Philippe Lamberts, in Brussels circa 2011/2. He wanted to put a cap on bank salaries, not just bonuses, as a means of encouraging the EU’s best and brightest into professions other than finance. That idea went nowhere.

      I agree with your contention.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        A lot of observers of China believe that the main reason they are cracking down on social media is specifically so this sector of the economy becomes a less attractive business/employment prospect than the alternative. They are making sure the best coders work for the government or in more productive sectors.

    3. David

      During the Cold War there was a lively academic debate about the size of the Soviet defence budget: calculating what percentage of GDP that represented in a non-market economy was extremely difficult, if not actually impossible. Eventually, after the end of the Cold War, it became obvious that there was no single figure for the defence budget: the military had absolute priority, and took everything they wanted. It was not, as we said at the time, a country with a defence budget but a defence budget with a country. In turn, this reflected the absolute priority given to avoiding any repetition of 1941: effectively, the Soviet Union was running a wartime economy for 45 years, and non-defence expenditure was always secondary. Whilst this had fairly serious results for the Soviet economy that was not, of course, why the SU fell: that was a bungled political reform which got out of control. The economic collapse came afterwards.

      1. Colonel Smithers

        Thank you, David.

        That sounds like the quips about Prussia and Pakistan, militaries with countries attached.

      2. upstater

        I think that the 1950s USSR was not dumping resources into strategic weapons at anywhere near the scale of the US. They had nothing close to the SAC or Polaris. The supposed missile gap was in the US favor. After Cuba, Brezhnev sought and got parity in almost every dimension. That’s when stagnation really took flight.

        In the US, something like a third of STEM graduates are employed in the MIC. Add to the millions of wasted minds in the FIRE and Lawfare sector. Coupled with decades of off shoring, the stagnation in the US is plain to see.

        PK, China has 4x the population of the US. They likely have 4x as many “smart people” and people see very tangible benefits and progress. Yes, they have demographic problems. So does the US when it comes to education. I doubt that China will fall into the stagnation trap, if for no other reason that military contractors ore SOEs, not like the cost-plus, fat-and-happy crowd that sells F-35s and the Ford or Zumwalt class of ships…

      3. JTMcPhee

        The Empire back then, as now, had lots of effing credentialed liars to puff up the Evil Soviets to something far beyond credibility — though the MICC (includes Congress) was always happy to pump wealth to the districts and states via the REAL “50 state plan.”

        So to establish the existence of a “bomber gap” requiring huge expenditures on a “nuclear triad” to supposedly counter (actually a play for overkill hegemony). The Soviets had a very few long range bombers at the time, but the War Department had observers at the Soviet Aviation Day parade in I believe 1954 or 55, and the two governments, for disparate reasons, seem to have conspired in a nice fraud — the Rooskies only had a few “Bison” long range bombers, but they flew 10 in circuits over the reviewing area, out of sight over the horizon, added 8 more and flew more circuits, letting the RAND/Air Farce statisticians argue that there were over 800 of them, adding the observed flying aircraft to projections from the floor area of Soviet bomber plants and applying the utilization and construction density numbers for Boeing B-52 and B-47 plants. Of course, the War Department knew they were lying in their teeth, U-2 photographic overflights disproved the whole charade, but hey, it’s only MMT money, right? Leading eventually to a US bomber force of over 2500 planes.

        The RAND SOBs pulled a similar statistical scam to “prove” a “missile gap,” basing their claim on the number of test launches the Russians did, and assuming since the US fired off less than 1 in maybe 20 to establish reliability, the Soviets (who had to test a much larger percentage) must have had 10 or more times as many missiles based on their observed test launches.

        And years later, some general acknowledged that the sales pitch for a huge NATO ground force, based on supposed superpowers of Soviet soldiers, was simply a fraud — Russian/Warsaw Pact troops were demoralized and abused conscript druggies and alcoholics who could not even be trusted with maps, for fear that they would desert.

        No careers were injured in the production of these frauds… and here we mopes are, screwed by the same crap yet again.

        No answer given to the question what a comity-and-commensalism-based, non-destructive and non-democidal political economy might look like and how it might be achieved. The question is not even asked in any place where an answer and policies might be forthcoming. Not consistent with the neoliberal world order.

        Though it looks to me like the Russians might be targeted much closer to something I would want my children and grandchildren to live in… they at least seem to be slower in eating their seed corn.

      4. Kouros

        One wonders why. Their problem was that they did not relax a bit to push for some mixed economy, internally. Ideology killed them and delayed China’s rise as well.

    4. ex-PFC Chuck

      “I don’t have figures to prove it, but my suspicion is that diverting the best and brightest engineers and scientists into developing whizzy but utterly pointless apps or Silicon Valley unicorns is far more damaging to the US’s long term economic strength.”

      The brain drain of techies from the top schools (Harvard, Yale, etc.) here in the States flows down the gutter to Wall Street as well. They’re the ones developing the algorithms of algorithmic trading.

      1. Thistlebreath

        Crunchbase sets out a few of the larger connections between Sandhill Rd and Foggy Bottom.

        Including Spacex, the company started by that guy sporting the dead possum on his head in yesterday’s NC article about tours in Texas.

      2. Susan the other

        Kinda poetic. If the brain drain develops algorithmic trading (at some warp speed) it leads to a monster monopoly deadlock and therefore needs price controls to survive. Which is also where an invincible military ends up. When Russia has turned “mother” Kiev into a pile of dusty bricks, the only way to fix her is with human rights.

  6. OnceWereVirologist

    On the topic of new cold war military spending being crippling. I’ve heard a lot of commentators say that corruption is endemic to the Russian military – that 25 cents in every dollar devoted to supplies or maintenance goes into some officer’s pocket, for example. Let’s for the sake of the argument say that that’s true. Germany, on the other hand, has a military budget that’s roughly comparable to Russia’s in dollar terms and of which I’m sure not even one cent in the dollar disappears into some general’s private accounts, yet its doubtful that they could independently field an armed force of any size at the present due to the lack of key capabilities, spare parts, and supplies. Which state of affairs represents a more fundamental and intractable corruption ? I’d honestly say that it’s the second, and whereas the Russians could potentially put a few officers up against a wall as an example to the others, to the get their style of corruption under control, the West will have to break a lot of military contracting rice bowls to do the same. Otherwise, the new Cold War is more likely to bankrupt key EU countries, than it is to bankrupt Russia.

    1. Polar Socialist

      That may have been issue before the multiple reforms. Nowadays the main issues of corruption in Russian military are related to patronage in promotions and service locations, misuse of position to gain benefits and to some extent kickbacks.

      Since the military industry has been concentrated into a few mega-corporations under the government control, there are not that many opportunities for embezzlement anymore. They are also getting rid of the ridiculously huge weapon storages a.k.a. tank parks and moving the reserve hardware to the active units for better inventory and maintenance.

      Besides, in opinion polls the military is one of the most trusted organizations in Russia. That would indicate it’s not in a state of banana republic armies.

      1. OnceWereVirologist

        You may be right. Most Western commentators seem unable to adapt their views of Russia beyond those of the Yeltsin era. The point is that Russia, even if there is still some level of corruption, is able to field a serious military force. Germany, France, and the UK, despite individually spending in the same ballpark as Russia would each struggle to send more than a tiny expeditionary force outside their own borders. Without fundamental reform, the amount of spending necessary to field a united NATO army to man the new Iron Curtain could be crippling.

      2. Kouros

        Add to that the not confirmed news that so far four Russian generals have died in the line of battle in Ukraine. That also speaks volumes for those that understand the message…

    2. PlutoniumKun

      The 18th and 19th Century British Army was ridden with corruption but still managed to conquer half the world.

      The problem in Germany and other European countries is often at its core a political one – since the end of the Cold War they have not had a coherent defence policy, so vast amounts of money have been wasted, mostly on trying to maintain small domestic arms suppliers while simultaneously striking the military. European weapons are often far more expensive than US or Russian equivalents because of a lack of scale and fragmented supply. I saw one estimate that a French smart bomb costs 10 times its US equivalent. The reason is a simple matter of scale. This applies across a range of European weaponry, especially those that are not widely sold. On the open market, German tanks cost something like four times the amount of a Russian one (and a lot more than the US M1 as well). Differential costs is one reason, but mostly its down to scale and long term purchasing policy. The Germans may order 2 or 300 units, while the Russians will be ordering 1000 or more.

      We hear a lot about the costs of the F-35, but pretty much every European combat aircraft programme has been in real terms equally if not more expensive. Its the price of maintaining a domestic arms industry when you don’t have the scale to buy in bulk and you have at least some qualms about selling the stuff everywhere (the French and Israeli’s usually don’t have this particular problem).

      1. OnceWereVirologist

        I agree that the problem is political. If Europe wants to compete militarily with Russia, or even just credibly commit to defend its members (without the Americans coming to save the day) then they need to think about creating a united Grand Army of Europe. It’s almost unimaginable politically. But merely bumping up national military spending all over Europe to the prescribed 2% is just going to produce a European NATO alliance that outspends Russia by an even more ridiculous margin while still being unable to defend itself.

        1. Polar Socialist

          I have a hypothesis that any such organization will, like NATO, turn into a bureaucracy interested only in standardization and integration instead of focusing on solving possible military problems.

          I’m of course completely out of my depth here, but I think that European defense should consist of national armies that focus on national defense, but also try to find ways of supporting each other with minimum possible integration.

          As an example I could give the Northern Wind exercise in Sweden in 2019. NATO (USA, UK, Norway) troops “invaded” Sweden and a Finnish brigade came to help Swedish brigade. There’s really no integration between Swedish and Finnish military (they even use different caliber rifles) but as neighboring countries share a similar way of “doing things”.

          The scuttlebutt in the Internets said that Swedish-Finnish collaboration beat the crap out of the team NATO. Partly because a forest with 4 feet of snow is a natural habitat for them, but also because a Finnish brigade is very artillery heavy. Basically Swedes and Finns learned quickly to play a tag team: very mobile, local Swedes did reconnaissance in force and fixed the NATO troops long enough for the Finns to pound them (virtually) to smithereens.

          1. TimH

            Reminds me of the bit in Blimp (wonderful film, awful title) where the invaders in an WW2 exercise don’t play by the rules, upsetting those with the WW1 mindset.

      2. sulfurcrested

        “The 18th and 19th Century British Army was ridden with corruption but still managed to conquer half the world.”
        That’s not totally correct.
        The British Navy which was the cutting edge of British Imperialism, was not corrupt per se. Promotion was by merit (inc “exams”)
        Yes, in the army, promotion (officer Corp’s) was “for sale”. However, merit was not totally absent (artillery being a key exception) . This structural corruption, as you note, worked largely well for centuries. At the least it was a structure that gave the upper classes a practical & active avenue into State service — so, important to the State itself….

  7. David

    Bit of a confused argument, as often with these sorts of articles. I suppose the author felt obliged to spout the usual propaganda about evil Russians, but of course the more that propaganda is presumed to be true, the more his own argument is undermined.

    Never mind. Let’s look at the situation as it now is. The phase of worldwide deployment and use of US military forces is evidently coming to an end. The Middle East is out: Iran is too tough a nut to crack, and the rest of the region is in turmoil. In spite of the confident predictions last year that the “arms lobby” would force the US to go back into Afghanistan, it hasn’t happened and it obviously isn’t going to. The US response to the Ukraine has alienated many states who might have been prepared to consider some form of cooperation. The US is effectively ruled out of any significant contribution to a military conflict in Asia: Chinese forces are simply too powerful and the US would be well advised to stay at a discreet distance. The Ukraine crisis has shown that Russia is the local military superpower in Europe. The US has very few forces capable of confronting Russian land/air forces directly, and would have to spend a decade in a vast recruitment, training, deployment and infrastructure programme to develop such forces and put them in Europe. Even then, the Europeans themselves would have to agree to the remilitarisation of their continent, and would themselves have to reintroduce compulsory military service, just to make the numbers up. I leave you to reflect on how easy that would all be.

    In any case, and for technical reasons, above a certain level, the incremental benefits from extra defence spending start to decline, and even become negative. Unless you are going to spend that money on effectively wartime level mobilisation, including raising and equipping complete new units, most of it’s going to be wasted. In any event, an economy can only absorb so much defence spending, and it seems unlikely that the defence industry, for example, is going to invest in new plants and training new workers. More probably, most of the additional money would not even be spent.

    1. Ignacio

      Let us then transfer the question to Europe. NATO and Ukrainian conflict is now forcing European countries to expand their military expenditures which I think was a desired outcome of the conflict. Spain, for instance has compromised some sizeable increase. And we are talking about countries with self inflicted spending limits and this means some other public expenses would or will be cut to buy those expensive ‘systems’. Have you any clue on how is this going through around the EU?

    2. The Rev Kev

      If you don’t mind me asking, does this mean that we are seeing the law of diminishing returns at work here? That last paragraph of your kinda sounded like it.

      1. David

        It’s (inevitably) a bit more complicated than just diminishing returns, though that’s part of it.

        To start with, money is only money: the difficult bit is turning it into useful military capability. Genuine military capability takes years to build, often longer than a government is in office. Even in the 1930s, the UK government started rearmament in 1936, but the aircraft and radars didn’t come into service until 1940. And that was stone-age technology compared to today’s.

        Let’s say your government proudly announces a 20% increase in defence spending. What that actually means depends on what you can buy, and that depends on how much spare capacity there is in the economy, and how many skilled people are looking for jobs. Defence equipment is relatively more expensive, and defence personnel relatively higher paid, than in the private sector. If you’re competing for products (eg electronics) or personnel (computer technicians) who are already in short supply, then the main result will simply be that prices and wages rise. Companies may be unwilling to set up new production lines, and foreign suppliers may or may not be interested. The result may well be that you can’t buy the equipment, or can’t attract the qualified people, so the money is never spent. On the other hand, things you can buy easily and quickly (petroleum products, commercial spares, computer equipment, clothing) won’t necessarily do much for your military capability. Between money not spent, money misspent, money spent because otherwise you’ll lose it, money spent paying higher prices and wages and the usual vagaries of inflation, foreign currency and raw material prices, your 20% increase may actually turn out to be much less in terms of actual military capability. meanwhile, those F-35s you are going to order won’t even start being delivered for perhaps five years.

        And let’s say you decide to order two squadrons’ worth, perhaps 24 aircraft. But by the time you factor in attrition buys and training aircraft, that’s maybe 32. Then, you realise that you haven’t got enough space in your existing airfields, so you have to build a new airbase or re-open a closed one if it hasn’t been sold. That’s 25km2 of terrain, with the construction of runways, aircraft shelters and buildings of all sorts as well as accommodation and storage. A modern aircraft squadron will have perhaps 100-150 personnel, mostly qualified technicians you’ll have to recruit. Then there’s all the ops staff, the radar operators, the administrators, the cooks, even the security personnel you’ll have to find from somewhere. Oh, and you’ll need potentially hundreds of houses for the personnel with families. You need to recruit the pilots, of course, you’ll need to increase your training throughput, which might be quite expensive, you may need to expand facilities at all of your training establishments, and find trainers for a new type of highly aircraft.

        Then you’ll have at least one more major piece of infrastructure, as well as other bits that have been increased in size, all of which have to be connected and worked into your existing plans and doctrine. Which is to say that a headline “we’ll buy 24 F-35s” is just the tip of an iceberg of complexity. Even if the money is there, you may well wind up diverting resources (notably pilots and skilled technicians) away from other roles to keep your shiny new acquisitions flying, with the result that overall your air force may wind up being less capable than it was before.

        There’s a lot more where that came from, but that’ll do to start.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          This is what amuses me about the German reaction. Having starved their military of funding, and refusing to make any hard decisions for 2 decades, they’ve now committed themselves to two separate aerial combat systems (F-35 and the new strike Typhoon), both with no shared parts whatever. Even the hangers will have to be designed differently (F-35’s seem to need more climate control). It will be insanely expensive, and cutting back the numbers ordered won’t help once they’ve committed themselves to the purchases. And they’ve also committed themselves to working with the French on a Gen VI fighter. Its madness.

        2. vao

          And when the time comes to put the credits to use, it might well dawn on those European governments that their industry no longer has the know-how to develop the necessary military hardware.

          The major, top-of-the-line European military equipment was designed basically at the time Gobarchev became General Secretary of the USSR:
          1) all main battle tanks — whether the French Leclerc, the German Leopard II, the British Challenger II or the Italian Ariete;
          2) all fighter aicrafts — Swedish Gripen, French Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon.
          3) all nuclear-powered aircraft carriers — meaning the sole French vessel Charles de Gaulle.

          Ever since the mid-1980s, Europeans have developed plenty of infantry fighting vehicles, helicopters, frigates, destroyers, submarines, and even small (Spanish and Italian) aircraft carriers (for VTOL/STOL aircraft) and large ones (British, non-nuclear powered), but none of the traditional, major elements of a first-class military force.

          I strongly suspect that the lack of recent experience and fading institutional knowledge in designing and implementing such complex systems will cause severe problems (i.e. massive delays, huge cost overruns, and fundamental design failures) when developing the replacements for currently deployed equipment.

          The counter-argument would be that nowadays warfare has changed and the aforementioned components are no longer that essential. However, do Europeans have as comprehensive and modern air defence systems as the Russian suite of S-300/S-400/Tor/Pantsir systems? Do they produce as modern and varied a fleet of drones as the USA or even Israel? What about ballistic and cruise missiles?

        3. Kouros

          I love operations side of things. This is where you see the executives’ eyes starting to glaze about…

    3. redleg

      The US has very few forces capable of confronting Russian land/air forces directly, and would have to spend a decade in a vast recruitment, training, deployment and infrastructure programme to develop such forces and put them in Europe.

      That’s exactly why any US war with Russia will be nuclear, and has been the case since at least the 1980s. We’re currently at the edge of the abyss…

      1. cfraenkel

        The threat goes back much farther to at least the 1950s and the original SIOP. One of Daniel Ellsberg’s main points in the Doomsday Machine was that US doctrine was that *any* shooting contact between US and Soviet forces would immediately trigger a nuclear response, because of the ‘use it or lose it’ fear. And that since generating the plan for coordinating launch times and targets was so complex, there was only one plan contained in the SIOP. Once one nuclear weapon was launched, all of them would go. (this changed by the 80’s, but there hasn’t been any confirmation in public that I’m aware of)

      2. Polar Socialist

        As far as I know, from it’s inception to early 60’s the sole purpose of NATO was to stop the “Soviet hordes” in Fulda Gap for long enough to annihilate them with nukes.

        During Khrushchev’s reign it became apparent that there never were any Soviet hordes to speak of and that with West Germany arming up there was indeed enough manpower for conventional war to win the day. Even if could be said that with T-64, RPG-7, MIG-25 and carrier killers like Kh-22 Soviet Union had a slight edge.

        1. David

          Soviet doctrine of the time was based on what was called “echeloning.” In the 1970s and 1980s, the Red Army was capable of fielding up to 180 divisions, but not all at the same time. The ready divisions (like the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany) were on constant alert, and had the most modern equipment: the second and third echelons were mainly reservists and would take some time to mobilise. The job of the first echelon troops was engage and destroy the NATO forces already mobilised. In the process, it was expected that they would be destroyed themselves. Indeed, the average life expectancy of a Soviet tank engine was 500km, since it was expected that the vehicle and its crew would be destroyed long before then. But by that time the second and even third echelons would be arriving, and they would overwhelm the remaining NATO forces. The Soviets had an essentially industrial concept of war, in which sheer numbers mattered a lot.

          There was never any realistic prospect of NATO generating the huge forces that would be required to defeat this kind of attack. So they developed two doctrines; One was called, if I remember correctly, Follow-on Forces Attack and was intended to use airpower to disrupt and destroy second and third echelon forces. The other was the use of nuclear weapons against major troop concentrations, signalling, it was hoped, the willingness to escalate unless the war stopped. Nobody had any idea if, or how, these plans would have worked, but they were all that was politically feasible at the time.

          1. Polar Socialist

            the average life expectancy of a Soviet tank engine was 500km

            You probably mean 500 hours, since 500 km is about the range of T-62 with full fuel load. I doubt they changed the whole engine during every fuel stop.

            Also, the Soviet doctrine you talk about sounds more defensive than offensive. One doesn’t commit the best troops to an attack before the second echelon is ready to follow up. But one would definitely use the best troops to stop or delay a surprise attack to gain time for mobilization.

            But I don’t know. Most of the Cold War in Europe made little sense to me anyway.

            1. David

              Sorry, you’re right. I meant 500 hours. And yes, all WP exercises assumed a NATO attack with as little as two hours notice, so the best troops had to be on the front line ready to repel them. The same would be true of a pre-emptive strike, which was always assumed to be part of WP doctrine but never admitted.

    4. Keith Newman

      @David, 7:14am
      “the author felt obliged to spout the usual propaganda about evil Russians, but of course the more that propaganda is presumed to be true, the more his own argument is undermined.”
      Very interesting insight, obvious perhaps, but I had not made the connection. I see this now obligatory proviso made by the “left” or “progressive” analysts I read in Canada: eg Yves Engler, David Mandel, and others.

  8. voteforno6

    I’m going to quibble with this part from the introduction:

    The older fogeys among the readership may remember that when the USSR unexpectedly fell, ex post facto analysts attributed it to Reagan era programs, including Star Wars, forcing the USSR into even higher levels of military spending that wound up being crippling.

    Some of the analysis made those claims, but they weren’t back up with actual evidence, at least none that I’ve seen. I think those claims were made as part of the general Reagon-worship that Republicans were engaging in, and also as a derriere-covering exercise by the intelligence types who totally dropped the ball on this.

    If those programs had actually contributed to the sudden collapse of the USSR, one would think that we would’ve seen an increase in military expenditures on the part of the USSR as a response, but that didn’t happen. In fact, I think that their spending leveled off in the ’70s. I remember reading that the U.S. State Department’s own intelligence branch had actually predicted the collapse of the USSR in the late ’70s, but nobody else in the U.S. intelligence apparatus paid any attention, as that did not conform with their ideological priors.

    So, why did the USSR collapse? I suspect that it was pretty simple – they had an overextended empire, and didn’t really recognize that until it was way too late. I think there are important lessons to learn here, but I doubt that policy-makers will recognize them until it’s too late, or at all.

  9. Appleseed

    $800B for the next U.S. Military budget? Apparently the generals don’t have to worry about just in time inventory since they can stockpile weapons and equipment with bipartisan support. That being the case, the electorate will never be able to vote for peace, much less a peace dividend which could result in more domestic spending and trigger shirt-rending outrage by the deficit/inflation hawks.

  10. The Rev Kev

    $800B for the next U.S. Military budget? Dude, pretty soon your Congress will be passing its first Trillion dollar military budget. You know that it is going to happen.

    1. Greg

      Not only is it going to happen, it’s going to be celebrated in Congress like it’s a historic moment of American greatness.

    2. JCC

      Actually, when you consider the pieces of the Military Budget more or less hidden from the Public like the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Energy (which handles all nuke maintenance including ships, subs, etc), I think we’re already at a Trillion.

  11. Ozz

    Interesting how he fell into the trap he was lecturing us about. The new cold war has been going on for sometime now this just gives it more momentum. In the military business fear sells. This created a lot more fear in some circles. Germany signed for new US aircraft in record time. Kaching goes the cash register. Next one in line please..

  12. Lex

    But the new cold war will be in reverse. Russia’s not going to run out of diesel, basic military equipment or 152/155mm artillery shells. Under sanctions, the highest tech gear may be difficult to produce but I’d argue that’s less important from a Russian strategic perspective as their defense is based primarily on actual defense and not global power projection. In the end, they don’t need that many Zirkons to make very specific points in western capitals.

    But those US defense budgets are unsustainable in the long run and we get very little for the expenditure. What we do get is designed less for combat effectiveness in the real world than it is for whiz-bang promotional material and contractor profits. We’re still talking about how we’ll send patriot batteries here and there. They’ve obviously been updated, but it’s still a 30 year old system that never worked very well. Note that no air defenses were even fired in the Iranian attack or the mercenary camp attack. The age of aircraft carriers is over but the US won’t admit it and spends billions for more. I’d be surprised if any theater aircraft carriers last more than the first hour of a conflict with Russia or China, and see above on whether those carriers have any chance at defending themselves.

    Unfortunately, Yves is right and instead of drawing down on our own terms will continue down this path until the failure is catastrophic.

  13. elissa3

    Dr. Strangelove: pure genius at every level: writing, casting, directing, editing, sound. I can watch it every year and still burst out laughing (to keep me from not sobbing uncontrollably). The miscreants who presume to rule us should be required to watch it again and again. And maybe, too, Peter Watkins’ The War Game, which I haven’t seen for a long while, but which probably has resonance.

  14. Susan the other

    “God’s squad” was in its full glory last night on PBS Frontline. Two shows: “Putin’s War” – just produced, and an older one from 2015, “Putin’s Way.” Both giving God’s rendition – not Putin’s. Pure propaganda to make Russian resolve look like nothing but murderous aggression. Not a word about the bloody Azov Brigade; the endemic Ukranian corruption; the shady history of Zelensky; not a word about Burisma, nothing whatsoever about biolabs. Oh, Romney forbid. Very little about Nato encroachment. There was an almost gratuitously gruesome explanation of Gaddafi’s murder which deflected the real reasons we obliterated Libya; also deflecting the veritable crusade the US was on to disrupt the entire Middle East and Russia. But, of course, not a word about the BRI. Talk about propaganda chickenshit. It was disgusting – Western propaganda at its most relentless. Most insidious. Even an “economist” who analyzed the poverty in Russia to be worse than India’s. (Nobody ever says inequality is relative – so naturally they did not compare US inequality with those “poor” nations.) Not a single word of praise – or even objectivity – for how Russia did the herculean task of coming back from collapse in the 90s to be a formidable global force. I’d have puked but, fortunately, I skipped dinner. Defund PBS.

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