Because the mainstream U.S. media remains neocon-dominated, there has been little rational debate about the risks of stumbling into nuclear war with Russia, as James W Carden writes.
By James W Carden
One question that the no-doubt intrepid debate moderators of the forthcoming Republican and Democratic debates might bestir themselves to ask the remaining candidates is: Given the fact that the U.S. and Russia are now circling one another on the Black Sea, in Ukraine, and in the skies over Syria, it is possible that policymakers are not completely alive to the risks inherent in such maneuverings?
The question is well worth asking since the world balance in 2016 is not only dangerous, it carries risks far in excess to the last time the great powers accidentally stumbled, into catastrophe. After all, unlike in the summer of 1914, today, all the great world powers have nuclear weapons. A brief consideration of The Great War reveals startling parallels with the situation that obtains today.
In the days immediately following the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand no one could have imagined what was ahead – and this points to a lesson that is still very relevant today: that in international affairs the intentions of other nation-states are essentially unknowable. As such, the pre-war status quo collapsed under the weight of that uncertainty.
What followed stands as a vivid example of what the political scientist Robert Jervis has called “the security dilemma.” This posits that when a state undertakes measures to increase its security, those measures will inevitably be seen as offensive rather than defensive by other states, who will then take counter-measures to increase their own security, and so on. In other words, so-called “defensive” weapons are not seen as “defensive” in the eyes of the states against which they are aimed.
As the eminent scholar of Europe, Professor David Calleo, has written, the Germans didn’t see themselves as aggressors. “The Imperial Germans,” he writes, “maintained they were waging war for defensive purposes, they were protecting their national unity from the wrath of the French who were determined to undo it.” The Entente Powers saw things differently.
It is also instructive to note the way democratic societies behaved in the run-up to the First World War. Today, well-funded and influential think tanks endlessly promote the idea that the U.S. ought to engage in a crusade to promote democracy abroad because “democracies don’t fight each other.” Yet the Great War puts the lie to that assertion, especially when you consider that the voting franchise in Germany was more inclusive than America’s at the time.
Democratic peace theory also purposefully ignores one of democracy’s principal problems: that when it comes to war, its citizens are prone to fall prey to a mob mentality. And a mob mentality and a war fever is exactly what gripped the democracies in Europe in the run-up to the Great War.
In an editorial published a week before hostilities broke out, The Nation magazine reported that: “In Vienna, in Paris, in Berlin, in St Petersburg, there were signs of acute mania affecting large bodies of people. Mob psychology often shows itself in discouraging and alarming forms, but is never so repulsive and appalling as when it is seen in great crowds shouting for war. Lest we forget indeed – about nothing does the mob forget so quickly as about war.”
The editorial went on to conclude: “If one looked only at these surface manifestations, one would be tempted to conclude that Europe was about to become a gigantic madhouse.”
Professor Calleo recounts that after Chancellor of Germany, Bethmann-Hollweg, was deposed, he wrote that he too saw the role of public opinion as “the crucial element – how else to explain the senseless and impassioned zeal which allowed countries like Italy, Rumania, and even America not originally involved in the war, no rest until they too had immersed themselves in the bloodbath?”
Today’s rush, likewise senseless and impassioned, to restart the Cold War is largely a product of the mutual admiration society that has sprung up between the Pentagon, hawkish administration officials, and their unscrupulous admirers in the media.
The propaganda churned out by Washington’s ‘military-media—think tank complex’ would have been all too familiar to the poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, both of whom served on the front lines of the Great War in France.
Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum est” was written at the front in 1917 and describes the death of a fellow soldier who had been gassed by the Germans. In the poem’s final stanza, Owen directly addresses a civilian war propagandist back in England, telling him that if he had seen first-hand the horrors of war:
“My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori
It is sweet and right to die for your country”
Owen was killed at the front a week before the Armistice was signed. His friend Sassoon survived. Unlike Owen, Sassoon lived a long life and produced some of the best known anti-war literature of the day.
At the front he produced what may be his most memorable offering, Suicide in the Trenches, in which he too castigated the hearty band of war propagandists cheering from the sidelines:
“You smug faced cowards with kindling eye
Who cheer as soldier lads march by
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The Hell where youth and laughter go”
One can’t help but wonder what Owen and Sassoon might have made of the legions of armchair generals and assorted foreign policy hangers-on who make up the ever expanding ranks of the New Cold Warriors in Washington today.
James W Carden is a contributing writer for The Nation and editor of The American Committee for East-West Accord’s eastwestaccord.com. He previously served as an advisor on Russia to the Special Representative for Global Inter-governmental Affairs at the U.S. State Department. [This article is adapted from a lecture given to students at the Moscow State University in February.]