The 3rd world war started

| On the way to the III. World war? The new global powder keg

As for relations between the United States under Donald Trump, the Russia of Vladimir Putin and the China Xi Jinping, observers from all over the world are currently speaking of a return to an all too familiar past. "Now we have a new Cold War," commented Russia expert Peter Felgenhauer in Moscow after President Trump recently announced the termination of the Treaty on Intermediate-Range Nuclear Systems (INF). The Trump administration is beginning "a new Cold War," wrote historian Walter Russell Mead inWall Street Journalafter a series of anti-China measures were approved by the President in October. And many more join the choir.

The current moves by the political leaderships in Washington, Moscow and Beijing seem to give credibility to the “new Cold War” narrative, but in this case the story is not a guide. After almost two decades of the 21st century, we are not faced with a slightly modified copy of the Cold War from the last century, but in a new and possibly far more dangerous global (forced) situation.

The actual Cold War, which lasted from the late 1940s to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, posed a colossal risk of thermonuclear annihilation. However, since at least the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, it has also brought about a remarkably stable situation - despite multiple local conflicts, both the United States and the Soviet Union tried to avoid any direct confrontation that could have sparked mutual catastrophe. Once faced with the abyss, in 1962, the leaderships of both superpowers were subsequently involved in a series of complex negotiations and agreements that led to a substantial reduction in their nuclear armament, so that the risk of a future Armageddon decreased.

What others are currently calling a New Cold War - I prefer to speak of a new global powder keg - bears at most minimal resemblance to this earlier period. Just as it was then, the United States and its rivals are embroiled in an ever faster arms race with atomic and “conventional” weapons of ever greater range, precision, and killing power. Likewise, all three countries are endeavoring in the characteristic Cold War fashion to win allies to their side in an increasingly evident global power struggle.

But that's where the similarities end. As for the differences, the first one couldn't be more obvious: The US is now facing not one, but two determined opponents, and is also dealing with a far more complex global map of conflicts (and thus a corresponding increase in the number of potential nuclear ones Trouble spots). At the same time, the old lines between "peace" and "war" are rapidly disappearing as all three rivals practice what could be considered combat by other means, including trade wars and cyberattacks, which subsequently lay the groundwork for a far greater one Level of violence. To exacerbate the danger, all three major powers are now involved in provocative actions aimed at intimidating their counterparts, such as threatening sea maneuvers by the US and China off Chinese-occupied islands in the South China Sea. And instead of working on the kind of arms control treaty that curbed hostilities during the Cold War, the US and Russia seem intent on tearing existing treaties to pieces and starting a new nuclear arms race.

These factors could be driving the world towards a new Cuban missile crisis as soon as the world got by a hair's breadth of nuclear cremation. This crisis could begin in the South China Sea or even in the Baltic Sea, where regular near-collisions occur between ships and aircraft from the USA and Russia.

Why are such dangers increasing so rapidly? To answer this, it is worth taking a look at the factors that distinguish the present moment from the historic Cold War.

A tripolar world

In the historic Cold War, the bipolar struggle between Moscow and Washington, as the remaining superpowers after centuries of imperialist rivalry, seemed to determine everything that happened on the world stage. This, of course, posed great danger, but it also gave the political leaders on each side the opportunity to develop a common understanding of the need for nuclear containment in the interests of survival.

The bipolar world of the Cold War was followed by what many observers called the “unipolar moment” when the United States dominated the world as the “last superpower”. During this period, from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Washington largely dominated the global agenda and used overwhelming military force to crush it whenever insignificant challengers - such as Iraqi President Saddam - emerged. But these military engagements in different parts of the world swallowed up huge sums of money and tied US forces in remarkably unsuccessful wars across the planet, while Moscow and Beijing - neither equally financially nor equally burdened - were able to invest in modernizing theirs military equipment and to pursue an expansion of their geopolitical role.

Today the “unipolar moment” is a thing of the past, and we are faced with something that can only be described as a tripolar world. All three rivals have oversized military apparatus with a substantial array of conventional and nuclear weapons. China and Russia have now caught up (albeit on a more modest scale) with the United States in terms of diplomatic, economic and military influence beyond their own borders. More importantly, all three rivals are run by nationalist leaders, each determined to advance their country's interests.

A tripolar world will, yes by definition, noticeably different from a bi- or unipolar, and imaginably much more divided, as Donald Trump's Washington, for example, can potentially provoke a crisis with either Moscow or Beijing at any moment for no apparent reason. In addition, hot spots are more likely to emerge in a tripolar world. Throughout the Cold War era, there was only one basic line of confrontation between two major powers: the border between NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries in Europe. Any flare-up of conflicts along this line could in fact have sparked brute force on both sides and most likely led to the use of atomic so-called tactical weapons or weapons used in theaters of war, which in turn would inevitably have resulted in total nuclear war. It was at such risk that the political leaders of those superpowers finally decided to take various de-escalating measures, including the 1987 INF Treaty, which banned the development of intermediate-range missiles that could trigger such a spiral of ultimate destruction - and which is now about to be disbanded .

Today, the line of confrontation between Russia and NATO in Europe has been completely restored (and recently confirmed) thanks to NATO's eastward expansion during the era of unipolarity as far as the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and the Baltic republics along one Line that is significantly closer to Russian territory. Just like during the Cold War, hundreds of thousands of well-armed soldiers are positioned along this line in order to be ready for extensive combat operations at very short notice.

A similar line of confrontation was established in Asia at the same time. It extends from the Far Eastern Territories of Russia to the East and South China Seas and the Indian Ocean. In May, the Pentagon's Pacific Army Command in Hawaii was renamed "Indo-Pacific Army Command", indicating the expansion of this frontier line of confrontation. Also at points on this border, aircraft and ships from the USA regularly encounter those from the Chinese or Russian side, often within firing range. The mere fact that the three major nuclear powers are now constantly struggling for positions and shoving each other for advantages over significant parts of the planet increases the likelihood of clashes, which in turn could trigger a spiral of escalation of catastrophic proportions.

The war has already started

During the Cold War, the USA and the USSR were embroiled in hostilities against each other that remained below the level of armed conflict, e.g. propaganda and warfare through disinformation, or extensive espionage. Likewise, both sought to expand their global influence through proxy wars - these were fought in the part of the world called the Third World, aimed at the support or elimination of regimes loyal to one center or another of power. These conflicts produced millions of casualties, but never led to direct combat between the two superpowers' armed forces (although each side stationed its forces in key regions: the US in Vietnam, the USSR in Afghanistan); Nor did the parties allow the spark to ignite the nuclear collision between them. At the time, both countries made a sharp distinction between such operations and the outbreak of a global "hot war".

In the 21st century, the lines between “peace” and “war” are already blurring as the powers of this tripolar competition face each other in operations that are not yet armed conflict, but have some characteristics of interstate conflict. For example, when President Trump first announced harsh import tariffs and other economic penalties against China, his goal, he said, was to end an unfair advantage that this country had gained in trade relations: “For months we have been pushing China to to end these unfair practices and to grant American companies fair and reciprocal conditions, ”he said in mid-September, announcing the imposition of tariffs on Chinese imports worth a further $ 200 billion. Obviously, this escalating trade war is also intended to hamper the Chinese economy, frustrating Beijing's efforts to catch up with the US as the world's major player. The Trump administration, like Neil Irwin in the New York Times writes, “Isolating China and forcing significant changes in Chinese trade practices. The ultimate goal ... is to bring economic relations between China and the rest of the world to zero. "

It is said that the president and his allies are taking these steps primarily to hinder Beijing's “Made in China 2025” plan and the ambitious project aimed at gaining the upper hand in certain key technologies of the global economy (including artificial intelligence and robotics). For China, it is therefore not just about a challenge in the context of a competition, but about a potentially existential threat to its own future status as a great power. Countermeasures can therefore be expected which will very likely lead to further erosion of the line between peace and war.

Furthermore, if there is any place where such lines are particularly in danger of being eroded, it is cyberspace, an increasingly important arena of combat in the post-Cold War world. On the one hand, a source of incredible wealth for companies whose communication and trade is based on the Internet, cyberspace is also a largely uncontrolled jungle in which criminals can spread misinformation, steal secrets or endanger economic or other businesses of critical importance. Its apparent permeability has made it a bonanza for criminals and political provocateurs of all kinds, including aggressive groups sponsored by governments who want to launch offensive operations below the threshold of armed struggle or pose serious threats to one to conjure up a particular country. As was discovered to the horror of the Americans, agents of the Russian government took advantage of the numerous vulnerabilities of the Internet to intervene in the 2016 presidential election. And they are reported to continue to do so, only to interfere in American electoral politics two years later. China, meanwhile, is believed to use the Internet to gain access to US technological secrets, including data on the design and construction of sophisticated weapon systems.

The United States has also started offensive cyber operations, such as the groundbreaking Stuxnet attack in 2010 that temporarily paralyzed Iran's uranium enrichment plants. The US also reportedly used such methods to attempt to interfere with North Korean missile launches. It is not known to what extent US cyberattacks were directed against China or Russia - but with a new "National Cyber ​​Strategy", as announced by the Trump administration in August, such procedures are much more likely. Our government legitimizes secret retaliatory attacks by claiming that these countries are endangering the national security of the USA through their constant cyberattacks.

The question is: could trade war and cyber war one day lead to regular armed conflict?

Muscle games in dangerous times

Such dangers are accompanied by another unmistakable characteristic of the new global powder keg: the unchecked impulse of the official top personnel of the three powers to promote their global assertiveness by the conspicuous display of military power, even by penetrating defensive or other areas of influence of their rivals. This can take a variety of forms, such as excessively aggressive military "exercises" and sending warships into disputed waters.

Increasingly massive and threatening military exercises have become a defining feature of this new era. Such operations typically include the mobilization of large air, sea, and land forces for simulated combat maneuvers, often held in areas adjacent to the rival's territories.

This summer, for example, NATO's alarm bells rang when Russia held its largest military exercise since World War II, “Vostok 2018”. With a force of 300,000 armed men, 36,000 armored vehicles and over 1,000 aircraft, the exercise was designed to prepare Russian forces for a possible confrontation with those of the US and NATO, while signaling Moscow's readiness for such engagement should. For its part, NATO recently held its largest exercise since the end of the Cold War, not to be outdone. Under the name "Trident Venture" this included a troop strength of 40,000 as well as 70 ships, 150 aircraft and 10,000 ground combat vehicles in maneuvers that were also intended to simulate a major clash between East and West in Europe.

Such periodic troop mobilizations can lead to dangerous and provocative steps on all sides, especially as ships and aircraft of competing forces maneuver in disputed areas such as the Baltic and Black Seas. In the course of an incident in 2016, Russian fighter jets flew provocatively in the direct vicinity of a US destroyer sailing through the Baltic Sea, which almost led to a fire. Even more recently, there was an incident in which a Russian plane reportedly came within five feet of a US surveillance aircraft over the Black Sea. To date, no one has been killed or wounded in such incidents, but it is only a matter of time before something goes seriously wrong.

The same goes for Chinese and US encounters in the South China Sea.China has turned some of the low-lying islets and atolls it claims in these waters into miniature military bases, equipped with runways, radars, and missile loading stations - steps condemned by the region's neighboring countries that claim the islands as well. The United States, which claims to be acting on behalf of its allies in the region and to protect its "free navigation" in the area, has attempted to counter China's provocative construction with its own aggressive acts. They dispatched their warships to waters in close proximity to the fortified islands. In response, the Chinese side also sent ships to harass the US, and recently one of them almost collided with a US destroyer. Vice President Pence reported on this on October 4th in a speech on China in the Hudson Institute: "We will not be intimidated and we will not give in."

Guess what happens next, as the effort not to give in is currently translating into increasingly aggressive maneuvers.

On the way to the III. World war?

All of this - economic attacks, cyberattacks and increasingly aggressive demonstrations of military strength combined - results in a situation where at any moment a modern version of the missile crisis in Cuba is emerging between the US and China, or the US and Russia, or even between them all three, could develop. Add to this risk the efforts of the political leaders of all three countries to lift the remaining restrictions on the accumulation of nuclear weapons in order to increase their arsenals considerably, and so the image of an extremely dangerous situation emerges before our eyes. It was only in February that President Trump gave the green light to a deal that could cost 1.6 trillion dollars to overhaul the US nuclear weapons systems and was actually already being considered in the Obama years to “modernize” the existing delivery systems. This includes intercontinental missiles, anti-submarine guided ballistic missiles and long-range bombers. Russia is also aiming for a similar overhaul of its nuclear weapons caches, while China is making its own modernization efforts with its much smaller arsenal.

Equally worrying is that all three powers appear to seek the development of nuclear weapons of war for use against conventional forces in the event of a major military conflagration. Russia, for example, has developed various short- and medium-range missiles that can carry both nuclear and conventional warheads, such as the 9M729 surface cruise missile, which US officials say are already in breach of the INF Treaty. The United States, which has long relied on aircraft to carry nuclear weapons to face a massive conventional weapon threat, is now looking for its own additional means of attack. As part of the New Nuclear Strategy of February 2018, the Pentagon will develop a nuclear warhead "with short range" for the existing conventional submarine missiles and is also planning to provide a nuclear missile for use at sea.

While on the one hand developing new weapon systems like the ones described and trying to extend the range of older systems, the great powers are on the other hand in the process of tearing down the remaining arms control building. President Trump's announcement on October 20 that the US would withdraw from the 1987 INF Treaty and single-handedly develop new missiles represents a disastrous step in that direction. "We will have to build these weapons," he told reporters * inside in Nevada after a rally. "We will end the contract and withdraw from it."

But how do the rest of us react to such a terrifying prospect in an increasingly vulnerable world? How can we get the pace of the race into the III. Slow down world war?

There is actually much that could be done to counter a new confrontation with nuclear weapons. After all, it was massive public pressure in the 1980s that led to the USA and the USSR becoming the first states to sign the INF Treaty. But for this to happen, a new world war must first be recognized as a central threat of our time, a danger that is possibly even greater than during the Cold War. Only by making this risk clear as a priority threat and showing how much the confusion of other developments is pushing in just such a direction can the attention of the global public, already seized by so many other concerns and problems, come back into focus.

Whether an atomic III. World War can still be prevented? Yes, but only if preventing it becomes a central, common goal of our time. And time is running out.

This post first appeared on October 30, 2018 in (c)Tom Dispatch.