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The Dangers of Militarization

Summary:
A great-power conflict is in no way unavoidable, unless these powers act as if it were. The greatest risk is that the US forgets the principles and institutions that have shored up its global leadership and, by emphasizing a narrative of confrontation, exposes the world to a self-fulfilling prophecy. MUNICH – Multipolarity is back, and with it strategic rivalry among the great powers. The re-emergence of China and the return of Russia to the forefront of global politics are two of the most salient international dynamics of the century thus far. During Donald Trump’s first year in the White House, the tension between the United States and these two countries increased markedly. As the US domestic political environment has deteriorated, so, too, have America’s relations with

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A great-power conflict is in no way unavoidable, unless these powers act as if it were. The greatest risk is that the US forgets the principles and institutions that have shored up its global leadership and, by emphasizing a narrative of confrontation, exposes the world to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

MUNICH – Multipolarity is back, and with it strategic rivalry among the great powers. The re-emergence of China and the return of Russia to the forefront of global politics are two of the most salient international dynamics of the century thus far. During Donald Trump’s first year in the White House, the tension between the United States and these two countries increased markedly. As the US domestic political environment has deteriorated, so, too, have America’s relations with those that are perceived as its principal adversaries.

When China’s President Xi Jinping rose to power just over five years ago, he presented the idea of a “new type of great power relations” based on cooperation and dialogue, as well as respect for one another’s national interests. But China does not always live by what it preaches as far as cooperation is concerned, as its unilateralism in the South China Sea indicates. Likewise, the relative loss of influence of the Chinese diplomatic corps contrasts with the emerging symbiosis between Xi and the People’s Liberation Army. Xi has even shown a surprising predisposition to wear a military uniform.

Russia, for its part, has invaded two former Soviet republics in the last decade, and its military spending as a share of GDP has been increasing almost exponentially. On top of this, the US and Russia have accused each other of violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the only Cold War-era agreement on armaments between the two countries that remains in force.

While it makes sense to recognize the current challenges, we should refrain from exaggerating them. In the past few months, the US administration has published three important documents: the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy, and the Nuclear Posture Review. In all of them, China and Russia are explicitly identified as serious threats to the international order. But the principal threat to the US today does not come from China or Russia; it comes from the confusion characterizing its own policies, owing to Trump’s rejection of the very international order that the US helped forge and defend for decades.

It is worth remembering that when Trump tries to intimidate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un by boasting of US military power, the facts are – for once – on his side. US military spending is by far the world’s highest, almost three times that of second-place China, and almost nine times that of third-place Russia. Indeed, the US spends more on defense than the following eight countries combined, and possesses the world’s most sophisticated nuclear arsenal. But, despite the Trump administration’s frequent (and often ungraceful) declarations of military superiority, its actions imply that this superiority is not enough.

The Nuclear Posture Review is the best example of this cognitive dissonance. The new US doctrine stipulates an increase in the number of tactical nuclear arms with relatively small explosive potential. The objective of this measure is to neutralize Russian capacities in this field, thus “denying potential adversaries any mistaken confidence that limited nuclear employment can provide a useful advantage over the United States and its allies.” But if the confidence is indeed mistaken, why respond as if it were not?

Javier Solana
President of @ESADEgeo - Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics. Distinguished Fellow at @BrookingsInst.

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