Let’s not let the great powers destroy the world | columns

The massive destruction caused by the atomic bombing of Japan in August 1945 should have been enough to convince national governments that the war game was over.

Wars have long existed between rival territories and later nations, with bitter conflicts between Athens and Sparta, Rome and Carthage, Spain and Britain and the combatants of World War I and World War II being among the best known. Although the wars had a variety of causes and were sometimes promoted with lofty ideals and slogans, they were often caused by disputes over territory and resources. Not surprisingly, the most powerful and heavily armed countries that had the best chance of emerging victorious from a military conflict were usually the most eager to do so.

With the advent of nuclear weapons, however, the traditional pattern of conflict between great powers—seeing other nations as enemies, opposing them militarily and waging devastating wars against them—had taken on a ghostly quality. As Albert Einstein observed, “General annihilation beckons.”

Unfortunately, the great power governments have been slow to learn this lesson. Despite their declared support for international security led by the United Nations, they increased their military budgets and engaged in new military invasions and wars. Meanwhile, they built vast nuclear armadas in preparation for future armed conflicts.

Today, the great power war game is particularly evident in Ukraine, where nuclear-armed nations are locked in a tense standoff. Russia, which seized parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014, has deployed more than 100,000 troops along that nation’s borders, as well as missiles, tanks and warships. And while the Russian government has denied any intention of invasion, their military juggernaut was clearly not put together to fool around. Indeed, President Vladimir Putin has issued ultimatums demanding that NATO reject Ukraine’s membership and remove military forces from NATO allies in much of Eastern Europe

Although the US government has denied any intention of sending troops to Ukraine, it, along with its NATO allies, is sending defensive weapons to the Ukrainian government and threatening a “tough” response to a Russian invasion. The US government claims it is simply trying to stave off a Russian invasion or takeover of a weaker neighbor. But the confrontation with Ukraine could have been avoided if previous US administrations had not angered Russia’s rulers by blithely expanding NATO eastwards – all the way to the Russian border

It’s certainly an explosive situation, but it’s also an extraordinarily dangerous one, especially given that Russia and the United States each have about 6,000 nuclear weapons.

Nor is this the only current military confrontation between nuclear powers, as US-China relations are also increasingly strained.

In recent years, the Chinese government has taken a harder line on world politics, turning disputed islands in the South China Sea into military bases and steadily building up Chinese military might. Meanwhile, its forces in the region have repeatedly engaged in dangerous confrontations with US warships. In addition, the Chinese government has begun threatening neighboring Taiwan by flying hundreds of warplanes into that island’s airspace.

The US government, in turn, has vehemently denied China’s claims of great power status. In addition to conducting military exercises in the South China Sea, often bypassing Chinese-claimed and occupied islands, it has established an anti-China military alliance and provided advanced weaponry to Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province. According to the Pentagon, this year’s increased US military budget is intended to “prioritize China”.

Although a war between China and the United States will most likely start with conventional weapons, it could easily escalate into nuclear war. Both nations have advanced nuclear weapons, and while the United States has a very significant advantage numerically, the Chinese have so far led the way in the production of hypersonic nuclear weapons. Such weapons fly more than five times faster than the speed of sound and have greater maneuverability than other nuclear-armed missiles.

If these developments seem to indicate that the major powers have not yet learned the lesson about war taught by the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is because they have not. And so the game goes on.

Numerous plans have been proposed to defuse these recent showdowns between the great powers. In the case of the US-Russian confrontation, some analysts recommended implementing the Minsk formula for the autonomy of eastern Ukraine. Others have proposed a broader solution, including the West’s acknowledgment of legitimate Russian security concerns and Russia’s acceptance that it cannot make Ukraine a vassal state or force the Baltic states to relinquish their NATO membership. In the case of the US-China confrontation, concerned observers have attempted to avert war by raising awareness of its dangers and championing cooperation projects between the two nations. These or other guidelines could still save the day. Or maybe not.

In the longer term, however, containing the dangerous war readiness of the great powers – and their would-bes – requires the establishment of an organizational structure with the responsibility and power to maintain international security. Such a project clearly requires a stronger system of global governance – a system better able to enforce international law than the one we have now.

Although the United Nations was founded with the stated aim of curbing the reckless behavior of individual governments, the world body is obviously not strong enough to carry out this task. In fact, contrary to their rhetoric, the major powers have never allowed them to take on that role, as increased UN authority would have hampered their own military endeavors.

Nevertheless, it remains possible to shake off outdated fantasies of national glory and to strengthen the United Nations as a key force for peace. This action, a truly meaningful response to the nuclear age, would dramatically improve the chances of saving the world from destruction at the hands of the great powers.

Lawrence Wittner, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of History at SUNY/Albany and author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).

Lawrence Wittner, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of History at SUNY/Albany and author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).

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