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There have been several recent articles in professional journals discussing the nature of the next war, whether the US is stuck in the past or is going in the right direction with regard to how we will fight. With due respect to the authors, who are all smart and experienced, I think they’ve missed something major.
The arguments all concern whether the US (and by extension the Western Alliances) has the right weapons to fight China and or Russia.
Yet in all of this what isn’t discussed is the nature of the war itself.
From 1945 to 1991 the United States and the Soviet Union were squared off against each other. Both sides engaged in posturing, moving of ships and aircraft, moving and realigning and reinforcing various forces ashore, developing new technologies, etc. But underlying all was the fear that a mistake, or a small confrontation that somehow got out of control, would result in a nuclear exchange. While there was talk of limited nuclear exchanges and even the discussion, started by Secretary of Defense Schlesinger, of a “nuclear firebreak” (after a limited exchange both sides would recoil and refrain from further use), no one really knew if there could be any de-escalation once nuclear weapons were used against each other.
This “doomsday” scenario forced the US and the USSR to develop means to confront each other through proxies while limiting direct confrontation, thus reducing the likelihood of a situation developing in an unexpected direction and escalating.
Meanwhile, the US continued to, for the most part, live as if we still had sanctuary, that, as in World War II, forces could return to the US free from threat, that people could live normal lives, factories could produce, farms grow, schools educate, etc.
Following the breakup of the Soviet Union this sense of ultimate safety persisted until September 11th. But, despite the horror of that day, no one in the US really lives in fear of attack, and certainly not in fear of large scale attacks.
Yet, is that the reality of the current day? Or is it likely that the next war will be fought, at least in part, on US soil?
In any war with China or Russia is it reasonable to conclude that the US could attack the enemy fleets without the enemy seeking to retaliate? Would the loss of scores of ships at sea, and thousands of sailors, be met with some sort of restraint in which only the US Navy would be attacked? Or would the enemy conduct a non-symmetric response? Perhaps it would be a cyber attack or an electro-magnetic pulse. Or germ warfare. And would we follow suit, and escalate the war? Where does that stop?
Consider: What if Nazi Germany had developed atomic weapons before being pushed out of the USSR and France? (The Nazis were, in fact, well behind the US in their research and development effort, a fact established by a Boston Red Sox Catcher turned spy, but that is a story everyone knows). If the Nazis had had a few atomic bombs… There are a host of possibilities but one possible outcome is that there’d have been a truce. It would have been a very uneasy one, but, it’s a possibility.
Years later, we might still be living with Nazi Germany, as odious as that sounds.
What’s the point? The point is that atomic bombs change everything.
Consider too: There’s a phenomenon in war games that the more often a game is played, and the more often the game ends in a favorable conclusion to one side, the less risk averse is the winner. Accepting risk, of course, is the key element in the steps leading up to any engagement - whether in a game or in reality. As with playing “chicken,” the more you win, the more willing you are to play chicken, to accept risk.
So, do the folks who are making policy, specifically security policy, in Washington and in the capitals of Europe, think - in their heart of hearts, that they are winning? With all the twisting of truth prevalent these days in Washington, what do they think? Do they think that the actions of the last 9 or 10 months show they are getting what they want? Are they confident that their decisions are right? Or, conversely, have they already blinked? Either way, the results could be disastrous.
What is needed is clear thinking. And a clear understanding of national interest.
Shortly before he took his oath of office then President Elect Kennedy was pulled aside by Dean Rusk who told him he needed to identify his own red line for the use of nuclear weapons. When, and for what purposes, would he actually order the use of nuclear weapons? And once he’d identified that red line, he should tell absolutely no one.
The point was obvious: Kennedy - and every President - needs to have thought through the use of nuclear weapons long before he ever gets to the point where people around him are considering their use. He needs to know when and for what he will and will not use these weapons. Only then, as he sees a situation developing pointing to that real red line, will he know when he, and he alone, needs to act.
In 1994 President Clinton, in order to persuade Ukraine to surrender its 1700 nuclear weapons, “guaranteed Ukrainian sovereignty.” Did President Clinton really think a future President would risk escalation with Russia over Ukrainian territory? Did President Obama make any effort to challenge Putin in 2014 when Russia seized Crimea? Did he understand when and how to accept risk? Or had he already decided there was no point at which he would use nuclear weapons? And had he conveyed that idea?
We are now in a very dangerous “game.” As with the USSR, the West must once again contain a very dangerous foe. China is every bit as odious as Nazi Germany, but has managed to dress itself in fancy clothes and lipstick. This time, not simply the West, but the rest of the globe, must contain China.
But we need to be rational, and that will require being cold and calculating.
More than anything else, this calls for the US (and it’s allies as well) beginning serious discussions as to exactly what is in the national interest. We may wish others well, but going to war has always been a serious business, one arguably we have taken too lightly at times in the past. That time is gone. We can no longer afford to have a Secretary of State who is so callous - and unaware of the real consequences of war - as to quip to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs that she wants to borrow the military if he isn’t using it. Nor can our allies afford Ministers of Defense who, as JQ Adams warned us, go abroad in search of dragons to slay.
The world has grown more dangerous than ever and will grow more dangerous still. We need to tread carefully, and also know when we really do need to act.
About Pete O'Brien
Peter O’Brien has more than 30 years of successful leadership and planning experience in a wide range of organizations afloat and ashore on three continents. Mr. O’Brien’s Navy career included ten years at sea, more than a dozen years stationed overseas and multiple ...