Sleepwalking Toward Catastrophe

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.

Earlier in the crisis over Syria, President Vladimir Putin of Russia welcomed President Barack Obama to the G20 Summit at Konstantinovsky Palace in Saint Petersburg, Russia, Sept. 5, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Earlier in the crisis over Syria, President Vladimir Putin of Russia welcomed President Barack Obama to the G20 Summit at Konstantinovsky Palace in Saint Petersburg, Russia, Sept. 5, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

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 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.]

11 comments for “Sleepwalking Toward Catastrophe

  1. eric siverson
    March 18, 2016 at 05:52

    non what so ever

  2. Shafiq
    March 10, 2016 at 20:03

    Clinton’s fingerprints are all over this, along with the antagonism of China. When the US has already infuriated most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, how much sense does it make to add 1.4 billion Chinese and 144 million Russians to the enemies list?

  3. Dieter Heymann
    March 10, 2016 at 07:58

    Thanks Mr. Carden for raising the “Black Sea” issue because it illustrates one of the underlying drives to conflict and war. It is that states often deny “national interest” to other states while touting and protecting their own, if needed by war. The simple fact that it is against the national interest of Russia that the Black Sea becomes a NATO-lake and Sevastopol a NATO port escapes not only the Obama administration but all presidential contenders but one. That is Mr. Trump. Frightening!
    It is the analog of Germany in 1914 denying that it was in the national interest of France that the Rhine should be the border with Germany at Lorraine. Interestingly Frederick (the Great) of Prussia proposed that the Rhine from Switzerland to the border of the Netherlands ought to be the Western border of Germany in exchange for his intended huge land-grabs in the East. If he had had his way then the city of Cologne (which was then in Prussia) would today be in Belgium!

  4. Winston Smith
    March 10, 2016 at 06:08

    On the basis of the intelligence available in Berlin the Germans were justified in regarding themselves as being the victims of Aggression. France was just about to march across Belgium to attack Germany in the converging, immediate strategic offensives arranged with Russia. The British force would act as its left wing. The British force would march as their left wing.

    Nicholas II, advised by his staffs would not stop his mobilisation. In 1914 general mobilisation meant war, as it was RAILWAY mobilisation.

    But Sir Edward Grey and the British War Party are far from innocent. Our ambassador’s signals of Russian general mobilisation and Germany’s uiltimatum failed to arrive and were lost in the postroom. It was not till 1922 was it proved, and admitted by the government, Russia had mobilised first. There was a problem with public opinion supporting the war. Thus late extras on Saturday evening in London and New York suddenly blazed “Germany Declares War”

    meanwhile Northcliife set up his secret propaganda department to influence American public opinion.

    There is a parrallel today, the same propaganda Psychological Warfare principles as in 1914 – demonise an individual, president Assad like “the Kaiser”, use emotion, use moral outrage, finally if they won’t move, bring on the atrocities.

  5. March 10, 2016 at 02:34

    Just say what everyone knows, the neocons are racist supremacist Jews and their shabbos goys.

  6. Evangelista
    March 8, 2016 at 22:25

    According to the early-released information by the EU leaders from their ‘summit’ with Turkey, a ‘tough’ agreement was negotiated, in which Turkey has agreed to take ‘back’ refugees currently in EU countries, who those countries want to send back, in exchange, one for one, for new refugees from Syria, and three billion Euros.

    If this is true, the EU leadership is Zombie-walking toward disaster. Consider: With Syria, with Russian aid, bringing the civil-invasion war to a close, booting Da’esh out, the civilian Syrians, who became refugees to escape the Da’esh ‘Islamic’ State, will be able to return to Syria, where there will be lots of jobs rebuilding what the warfare destroyed, even enough for other Arab-lands refugees. For this Turkey will be able to simply shunt through the refugee-returnees it takes from the EU, for doing which it will be paid 3 billion… A sweet deal, but not especially dangerous to anyone.

    But then there are the “Syrians” the EU, according to its information release, has agreed to take from Turkey one-for-one exchange. Who will these “Syrians” be who will not want to, or will be unable to, return to Syria? Those “Syrians” who Turkey has been supporting and encouraging in their effort to overthrow the government of Syria to make themselves an ‘Islamic’ State their.

    Yep, if the information releases are correct, the EU is going to unload itself of predominantly civilian (except for the most recent ‘influx’ arrival) refugees and load itself with ex-Da’esh, ‘Islamic’ State in Syria “Syrian” refugees/agents, whatever you want to call them (except ‘infiltrators’, since they won’t be having to infiltrate).

    Terrorists already trained.

    Of course Erdogan’s government had to take over the main Turkish newspaper, the one that exposed his last terrorist-supporting activities. The first thing responsible Turkish reporters would have done was expose who Erdogan’s exchange ‘refugees’ were, and where they were coming from.

    • Zachary Smith
      March 9, 2016 at 21:03

      What you wrote was so crazy-sounding that I had to check it out. Unfortunately, it seems to be true.

      Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu unexpectedly presented his EU counterparts with new proposals during an extraordinary summit in Brussels on Monday, including offering to take back all migrants and asylum who arrive in Greece.

      In return, EU member states would commit to directly resettling one Syrian refugee out of Turkey for each Syrian that Ankara takes back from Greece.

      Have the big brass of the EU gone completely off their medications? No wonder Britain is seriously considering leaving the mess.

  7. Eric Patton
    March 8, 2016 at 12:38

    Woodrow Wilson intended to take the country to war. Public opinion in the US was anti-war, and Wilson changed public opinion so he could enter the war. Has Carden not read Chomsky?

    • Zachary Smith
      March 9, 2016 at 13:04

      “Woodrow Wilson intended to take the country to war.”

      When I read Barbara Tuchman’s “Zimmermann Telegram” I got the opposite impression. She couldn’t explain Wilson’s foot-dragging, and neither can I, but Wilson seems to have lived in a world of his own making. Besides, the US was doing extremely well selling weapons to the French and British.

      Back to the essay; I’d suggest Mr. Carden explore the possibility that there are special interests in the world who would welcome a small nuclear exchange. Yes, it’s crazy, but so is the fact that some other “special interests” are driving our planet to destruction by continuing to put gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. Everybody loses in the long-term – even them – but in the short term they make out very well.

      • eric siverson
        March 18, 2016 at 05:39

        Why do think Carbon dioxide is so dangerous .? Maybe global warming is just another lie , a false religion , designed to collect money from ignorant people . I wish the people that believe in their ability to change the earths climate would donate their own money . I don’t try to force my beliefs on you .

  8. Secret Agent
    March 8, 2016 at 04:34

    The Saker has posted a fascinating insight on the drift to war. Apparently there is a schism in the deep state. Something a lot of people have suspected this last year.

    I changed my mind. Give me the blue pill.

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