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A Return to Containment: Kennan and the Responsible Use of Power – Part 1

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A Return to Containment: Kennan and the Responsible Use of Power - Part 1

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Written by Stewart J. Melanson PhD exclusively for SouthFront

Part 1: The Intentional Destruction of U.S. Hegemony

Civitates Foederatae Americae Hegemonia, 1991-2017

Introduction: The Corrosive Effects of Power

British historian Lord Acton observed “…a person’s sense of morality lessens as his or her power increases.”, which in turn inspired the more familiar phrase ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ – meaning that even if initial intentions were good, unassailable power will in time bend benevolent intent until the ruler believes in their own mind that their tyrannical rule is and always will be benevolent.  This is a central theme in Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’.

In Tolkien’s fictional world of Middle Earth, Dark Lord Sauron forged twenty rings of power, but one ring had power over all the others – the ‘One Ring’ to rule them all.  But Sauron lost the One Ring in battle and seeks to regain the ring so he may reign supreme once again.  Yet others also seek the One Ring for themselves, believing they could use the ring’s power for good – to destroy the Dark Lord Sauron.  But no matter how good or how strong of mind is the bearer of the One Ring, inevitably, they too will be corrupted.   In time, the memory of who they once were recedes to nothing, until what is reflected in the mirror is the image of what they have become, Sauron.

Is it inevitable that supreme power will turn us all into dark lords?  Yes, according to the Power Paradox. But not only that, the intoxicating use of unchecked power will lead to our eventual downfall.  Ironically, the powerful become anarchists – there are no rules or constraints, at least none that will govern them:

In our tour of the abuses of power… when it comes to ethical behavior, it is the wealthy and powerful who don’t play by the rules. LINK

That is, until the day they go too far…

Rome’s era as a monarchy ended in 509 B.C. with the overthrow of its seventh king, Lucius Tarquinius… cruel and tyrannical, compared to his benevolent predecessors. A popular uprising was said to have arisen over the rape of a virtuous noblewoman, Lucretia, by the king’s son… LINK

The Illusion of American Exceptionalism

When the U.S. emerged from the end of the Cold War as the world’s sole superpower, no nation could challenge US power and so began the era of US global hegemony.   There was of course hope for a benevolent hegemony that would bring stability, peace and prosperity.  But even if it began this way, benevolent rule must endure the test of time, and resist the corrupting influence of power. LINK

American exceptionalism following the Cold War fed into the idealistic belief that the US was somehow above such corrupting influences.  Even academics in the field of international relations had developed a theory of benevolent hegemony – Hegemonic Stability Theory.  But the founding fathers had no such illusions, believing the Republic could be corrupted like any other, and for this reason, built into the US Constitution safeguards against tyranny:

The founding fathers were men of the Enlightenment and devised “a system of government based on ideas rather than power, and purposefully delineated a separation of powers to preserve individual liberty.  Under the U.S. Constitution, the power of the federal government is artfully split among three branches that minimally overlap and check each other’s power.” LINK

The importance of maintaining an internal Balance of power can also be extrapolated to the international arena.  The end of superpower rivalry removed the counterbalancing role of the Soviet Union as a check on US power and so, the allure to break the rules of the international system presented a temptation hard to resist.  Backed by supreme military might, the US could exempt itself from the rules that govern the international system – for example, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) or ‘World Court’.  The US would decide when, and when they are not subject to the court’s jurisdiction: LINK

For the US, there is no government other then itself, no higher power, not even God.  By definition, a global hegemonic power can, and will shape the international system to its liking – the world becomes its oyster.  But if the hegemon’s behavior is increasingly anarchical and oppressive, then the system loses legitimacy and progressively breaks-down as more and more nations rise to oppose the hegemon’s oppressive rule.  The break-down of the international system is of great concern since it includes the system of global security under which the system of arms control treaties is being dismantled.

Our Descent into Anarchy

In 2018, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu described the deterioration in global security as the “destruction of the existing system of security”.

The late Professor Stephen Cohen, one of the most knowledgeable experts on Russian affairs, had repeatedly warned us that the international security situation is at its most dangerous in his 45 years of studying Russian affairs: LINK And the warning bells keep ringing: “The world is more dangerous, nebulous and unstable now than during the Cold War”: LINK

The erosion of the international system is reflected in the erosion of the hegemon’s own internal power dynamics:

… the termination of treaties typically involved joint action by the executive and legislative branches until … unilateral termination by the Executive became the norm. Some members of Congress have contested unilateral executive authority in the past, but judicial challenges have been dismissed … The Trump Administration’s recent withdrawals—and any future withdrawals resulting from its review of all treaties with ICJ clauses—could establish additional historical precedent for unilateral executive withdrawal power. LINK

Power corrupts within, and radiates outwardly to corrupt the international system until collapse and emergence of a new power to bring back stability to the system.  We are living in the twilight hours of the ‘American Empire’ as the transition to a multi-polar world order entrenches to establish a new status quo.  However, the rise of China presents the possibility of a new superpower hegemony to replace receding US power – the problem with this can be succinctly put; ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’.

These Dangerous Times We Live In

The highly respected Russian expert Professor Cohen argued the current situation is more dangerous then any period of the Cold War.  Why is now so dangerous?  The danger is most acute during the transition period from the old to the new international system.  During the Cold War there was an established relatively stable status quo with the added disciplining effect of nuclear weapons – mutually assured destruction (MAD).  The concept of MAD was raised by British author Wilkie Collins well before the existence of atomic bombs.  In a letter dated August 7, 1870, Collins wrote of the Franco-Prussian war:

Here are the nations still ready to slaughter each other, at the command of one miserable wretch whose interest is to set them fighting! … I begin to believe in only one civilizing influence – the discovery… of a destructive agent so terrible that War shall mean annihilation, and men’s fears shall force them to keep the peace. LINK

The Franco-Prussian war was waged by a newly unified Germany and began a new power struggle in Europe to knock France down a few pegs and unseat British dominance.  A coalition formed around a declining Britain (Triple Entente) while another (Triple Alliance) around a rising Germany. LINK  The coalition rivalry lacked stability and culminated in the first world war – the war that was suppose to end all wars.

But the ‘unjust’ peace designed to keep Germany down sowed the seeds for a second world war, even more destructive than the last.  As destructive as they were, civilization did not end.  Now we can bring civilization to an end in less than a day.  A single hydrogen bomb has more destructive energy then all munitions expended by all combatants in both WW1 and WW2 combined.

While the unification of Germany introduced a destabilizing new great power, the very existence of civilization was not under threat – now the stakes are much higher.  Todays chaos and uncertainty raises the spectre of global war.  The 2018 US Nuclear Posture Review puts this in perspective:

global threat conditions have worsened markedly since the most recent 2010 NPR …This rapid deterioration of the threat environment …must now shape our thinking as we formulate policy and strategy [in modernization] of U.S. nuclear forces.

See Executive Summary, pages V – VI LINK

The Cycle

Anyone familiar with world history will be familiar with the concept of the great power life cycle where nations rise, peak, decline and finally collapse – to be replaced by the new rising power.  Paul Kennedy gives a detailed historical review of this cycle over a period of 500 years.  Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500-2000, Knopf Doubleday, 2010, 706 pages

Will the US share the same fate of prior great powers and empires?  Will China be the rising power to replace US hegemony with its own?  Another possibility is China will fall short of superpower status to be among many great powers that include a weakened US.  Or will the outcome be something quite unexpected?

A fairly recent article published in the journal, International Security, argues the US will maintain sole superpower status for decades to come and that China will not succeed in rising to superpower status.

Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in the Twenty-first Century: China’s Rise and the Fate of America’s Global Position, International Security, 40(3) Winter 2015/16, p.7-53 LINK

However, even if still a superpower, the US military believes that US hegemony has already been lost:

For the first time in 25 years, the United States is facing a return to great power competition…

LINK page 5, quoting Admiral Richardson, “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority”, 2017 (V.1.0)

The US Department of Defence acknowledged emerging multi-polarity in 2017, and has since reinforced this view – for example, the US Navy’s Dec. 2018 “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority (2.0)”:

President Trump issued a new National Security Strategy (NSS) in December 2017 and Secretary of Defense Mattis issued a supporting National Defense Strategy (NDS) in January 2018. A new National Military Strategy (NMS) will follow. These documents orient national security objectives more firmly toward great power competition. While Design 1.0 highlighted that competition, these new strategies demand that we re-evaluate our current heading to ensure it maximizes the Navy’s contribution to the objectives they set forth.  [author emphasis] LINK

Are we progressing to multi-polarity; a utopian world infested with bickering great powers?  Or will China rush in to fill the hegemonic vacuum?  There is also the possibility that the US and China will fall into a bipolar superpower rivalry in a New Cold War.  If you have been paying attention to the media, there has been a sharp rise in highly negative coverage of China.  From a policy perspective, an early broadside directed at China was the 2017 US National Security Strategy, declaring China’s peaceful rise to great power status had not gone as planned and a more confrontational policy towards China was needed. Weaver, J.M. The 2017 National Security Strategy of the United States, J. of Strat. Sec. 11(1), 2018: 62-71 LINK

A Return to Containment: Kennan and the Responsible Use of Power - Part 1

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It would appear that the US military has determined 2017 was the year that marked the end of US hegemony in the face of a rising China – and resurgence of Russia:

Civitates Foederatae Americae Hegemonia, 1991-2017

Rising China

Only two nations qualify as near-peer threats to the US and they are Russia and China.  In the long run, China is seen as the biggest threat.  In a January 2019 article by Robert Kaplan, published in Foreign Policy with the not so subtle title: “A New Cold War Has Begun”:

The American military contest with China … will define the twenty-first century. And China will be a more formidable adversary than Russia ever was… The United States and China will be locked in a contest for decades. But Washington can win if it stays more patient than Beijing. LINK

For those that know the history of the first Cold War, the choice of wording is revealing.  A central idea in George Kennan’s Policy of Containment was that the Soviet Union would eventually collapse due to its own internal contradictions.  For this reason, Kennan advocated strategic patience.  Although it took decades for the Soviet Union to collapse on its own, strategic patience averted the risk of nuclear war: LINK p.25

Kaplan wrote a much earlier article in 2005 about the coming US-China rivalry published in the Atlantic:

For some time now no navy or air force has posed a threat to the United States. …This will soon change. The Chinese navy is poised to push out into the Pacific—and when it does, it will very quickly encounter a U.S. Navy and Air Force unwilling to budge from the coastal shelf of the Asian mainland. It’s not hard to imagine the result: a replay of the decades-long Cold War, with a center of gravity not in the heart of Europe but, rather, among Pacific atollsLINK

It is certainly not hard to imagine as we are seeing it play out right before our eyes – and Kaplan sees where this is heading – a “replay of the decades-long Cold War”.  Should we be fearful?  Some argue a New Cold War is a good thing – Kenneth Waltz, architect of the international relations theory Defensive Realism, viewed superpower rivalry as a means to restore balance in the international system:

With the relative decline of US, China and America can enter into bipolar relationship much like the US and the USSR during the Cold War. Since Waltz himself posits bipolarity as the most stable of international configurations, it can be argued that act of balancing between the US and China brings the international distribution of power into an equilibrium and averts the risk of war. LINK 

In Kenneth Waltz’s view, a bipolar superpower rivalry is more stable than either unipolar hegemony or multi-polar great power rivalry. Our experience of descent into anarchy under US hegemony has no shortage of critics; from the National Interest:

…it became abundantly clear that the lack of a debate in Washington was part and parcel of a larger foreign policy failing, which was the refusal to ponder the larger implications and consequences of the promiscuous use of American power abroad… substitution of military might for diplomacy, of bellicose rhetoric for attainable aspirations, dramatically weakened rather than strengthened America’s standing around the globe. LINK

Soon following the death of George Kennan in 2005, the problem of unbridled power was a major theme in “After Containment” by John Gaddis.  In his article, Gaddis conducts a back and forth dialectic of the merits and flaws of a solution to the problem of hegemonic tyranny:

the successes of containment had clearly outweighed its failures. There was no war with the Soviet Union… There was no appeasement either, as there had been in the years between the two world wars. Whatever the miscalculations, whatever the costs, the United States and its allies sustained a strategy that was far more consistent, effective, and morally justifiable than anything their adversaries were able to manage LINK

The solution is a return to Kennan’s Policy of Containment which dominated US foreign policy for the duration of the first Cold War.  Of interest is Gaddis describing Containment as morally justifiable.  Although a great deal has been written about Containment, often neglected is that when President Truman adopted the policy of Containment in 1947 (Truman Doctrine), Truman fused the policy with Wilsonian idealism which added complexity to the practical application of policy – this is highly relevant and is discussed at length in Parts 2 and 3.

A Return to Containment: Kennan and the Responsible Use of Power - Part 1

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If the solution is a New Cold War governed by a Kennan style containment policy, will not the same problem repeat when the New Cold War comes to an end, leaving a single uncontested hegemonic power?   If so, we face the prospect of once again coming under the boot of global tyranny.  Don’t tread on me!  Perhaps, in anticipation, a plan could be devised to mitigate the negatives and guide as quickly as possible the transition from a hegemonic world order back to a more stable bipolar balance of power.

This would entail accelerating the destruction of hegemonic power, which can be done by implementing a totally outrageous tyrannical foreign policy that delegitimizes hegemonic leadership and generates mounting opposition to hegemonic rule.  At the same time, a new superpower must rise to play the part of adversary in a new superpower rivalry – and also to pre-empt the possibility of a world order of bickering great powers – given their dismal track record of two world wars.

Preparing China and the World for a New Cold War

If we take China as an example of a candidate to be the Cold War adversary, we can see what is involved in the grooming process.  The candidate must be allowed to rise in status to a level sufficient to pose a credible threat to US power.  Until only recently, China had steadily grown in economic and military power largely unfettered to the point of becoming a near-peer to US power.  However, if China is to become the official evil adversary, there is the problem of China being ‘workshop of the world’.  This requires steps to mitigate key supply-chain dependencies prior to China’s elevation to adversary.

Trump has been doing just that by exposing supply-chain dependency on China to be a national security risk and resolving dependency on China will bring manufacturing jobs back to America.  In further preparation for the break with China, Trump has engaged in trade wars and targeted Chinese high technology companies such as Huawei as security risks.  Many other nations are joining together to address potential security risks of Chinese telecommunications hardware and infrastructure within their borders; fear of cell phones spying and 5G infrastructure having hidden espionage capabilities and so on.

I suggest watching YouTube video: South Korea, Japan Among Nations Looking To Shift Factories Out Of China Due To COVID-19 Impact, and the plan is to have India supplant China as the world’s workshop – the India, Japan, SK, Australia, US Pacific ‘NATO’.

The Soviet Union was feared not only militarily, but also for its policy to export communist ideology through subversion.  We can see this fear being stoked by exposing Chinese subversive activities such as co-opting university academics and subversion through Confucius Institutes:

… The contract [Sonia Zhao] signed with the Beijing-run Confucius Institute indicated that Falun Gong practitioners – people like her – were barred from the job. But she kept her beliefs secret… She says she was trained beforehand to spin Beijing’s line if students asked about Tibet and other taboo topics… She believes Canada should have nothing to do with the agency…

Launched in 2004, Confucius has opened 540 branches around the world. Unlike Alliance Françoise, the Goethe Institute and other cultural-outreach groups funded by some European states, it is an actual department of government and embeds itself, uniquely, inside foreign educational bodies. LINK

In August 2020, Trump designated Confucius Institutes in the US as “foreign missions of the Chinese Communist Party”.  As expected, China lashed out that the US was “trying to “demonize and stigmatize” relations between the two countries”. LINK We can see both China and the US are putting on an exemplary performance in preparing the world for a US-China New Cold War.

A 2020 multi-nation Pew research poll reveals a sharp rise in negative public perception of China:

Views of China have grown more negative in recent years across many advanced economies, and unfavorable opinion has soared over the past year, a new 14-country Pew Research Center survey shows. Today, a majority in each of the surveyed countries has an unfavorable opinion of China. And in Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United States, South Korea, Spain and Canada, negative views have reached their highest points since the Center began polling on this topic more than a decade ago. LINK

The historical charts show a stunning shift in public attitudes towards China in the last three years and especially in this last year.  Of interest is the close association of demonizing China with US military recognition of loss of hegemonic dominance – it is unusual to say the least that planning documents of the US military would concede so readily that they have been knocked off their perch.  It is instructive to contrast China with Russia: LINK  Pew research shows negative views of Russia and Putin but not as intense and much more variation than perceptions of China.  Further, more positive views of Russia/Putin have been trending since 2015 – perhaps to cool the jets on Russia in anticipation of turning on the heat on China.

A key observation about the data is how quickly and dramatically perceptions were shifted against China compared to Russia and Putin that endured many years of intense media demonization.  This is in my view due to China being much closer in ideology to the Soviet Union and illustrates the power of idealism in effective mobilization of the public to support a more confrontational policy towards China.  I will address this in more detail in Parts 2 and 3.

Intentional or Happenchance

Is it simply a matter of happenchance that we are stumbling into a New Cold War with China, or is it possible that some guiding hand brings us to where we are now?  At first glance, this sounds like some crazy conspiracy theory, and on the surface it does.  However, I will demonstrate it is not crazy at all.

If there is a guiding hand, whose hand might it be?  I suspect the hand to belong to an entity that loses in a system of US hegemony and benefits from a New Cold War.  That entity must also have sufficient power to have a material influence on US policy.  These criteria happen to fit the US military.  Below in point form I summarize the primary reasons why the US military would want to end US hegemony and restore Cold War rivalry.

  • The most fundamental reason is that stability of the international system under US hegemony will lead to general global disarmament. This is not in the interests of the US military.
  • Further, a multipolar world order of great power rivalry is not desirable given a poor track record of two world wars and the military want to maintain superpower status which requires greater military expenditures then would be the case if the US were to decline to only great power status.
  • What is also not in the interests of the US military is a foreign policy that destabilizes the international system, increasing the risk of nuclear war – everyone loses.
  • What is in the interests of the US military is to allow itself to be weakened enough to enter into a superpower rivalry with a near peer that restores both a balance of power and restores the need for large military expenditures for decades to come.

Although hardly altruistic, a New Cold War may be the best option among alternatives – particularly if the US adopts a prudent foreign policy along the lines of Kennan’s Policy of Containment.  I now turn my attention to the US military establishment.

A Return to Containment: Kennan and the Responsible Use of Power - Part 1

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In Defence of the U.S. Military

The founding fathers believed rights come from God, not government, and the U.S. Constitution is a codified expression of these rights.   The U.S. military is bound by oath to uphold the US Constitution, not the government.  Leaders in the US military would know that if US hegemony became tyrannical, the military would be the enforcer of global tyranny.

The oath was to uphold the US Constitution which applies to the US citizenry, not to citizens of other nations.  The problem is that American values are universal rights from God and so transcend nation states.  The imposition of tyrannical rule over other nations is an affront to God and immoral.  It strikes at the very core of American values that the US champions abroad for other nations to emulate.  It is tantamount to absolute moral bankruptcy.  And yet, this was the path chosen.

On October 20, 2001, President ‘W’ Bush outlined in a public address to Congress, a nightmarish vision of tyrannical hegemony:

Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists. [The author encourages reading of the full transcript] LINK

All nations must fall in line with the US or else, be labeled an enemy of the US – there will be no middle ground, no neutrality – a global tyranny that would be sustained with full complicity of the US military:

George W. Bush’s administration …intensified unilateralism in several ways: [such as] through tactless diplomacy …. All of this led to an unprecedented loss of support throughout the rest of the world for the United States and its foreign policy objectives. The view seemed to be emerging that there could be nothing worse than American hegemony if it was to be used in this wayLINK The New Republic After Containment, by John Gaddis, April 25, 2005 [author emphasis]

If there is nothing worse than American hegemony, then nations under the hegemonic boot have little to lose trying to overthrow the global tyranny – for which the US military stands guilty.

Most will agree there is no need for a trial, the military leadership is clearly guilty on all counts.  Execute all those responsible!  And some will oppose, clinging to a misplaced sense of justice that it is wrong to deny them rights to a fair trial.  But they do not deserve the rights they have denied their victims.

Now step back and think about what I have just said.  If you think about it, there is a fatal flaw in my argument.  No matter how reprehensible the crime, execution of the innocent is still a travesty of justice.  You cannot presume guilt – the accused are innocent until proven guilty.  This is not a trivial point, it is fundamental.

If the means of dispensing justice is to commit the very crimes for which we find the accused to be guilty, and then exempt ourselves so that we are above the law, then we have become Dark Lords like Sauron.   If we want justice and equality before the law, then we must practice it ourselves.

The accused have the right to representation and council without prejudice to prove their innocence – the prosecution has the task of proving guilt.  Unfortunately, many lawyers have been threatened for defending alleged rapists and alleged serial killers, well before a verdict has been reached.  And if the verdict is not guilty, public anger will be heaped onto the shoulders of the spineless scoundrel that defended the monster, not caring that the prosecution failed to establish guilt. The injustice of presumed guilt is a central theme explored in Lee Harper’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” where prejudice triumphed over truth.

Those readers familiar with my commentary will know I have been a harsh critic of the U.S. military, but all are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and I refuse to be a hypocrite.  And so, I will take on the unpopular role of arguing a case in defence of the United States military with no preconceptions of where this may take me.

In making my case, be assured I do not whitewash the past or claim military leaders did not understand the consequences of their actions – they knew what they were doing.  In my view, the military is guilty, but with mitigating circumstances that need to be voiced.  I believe the U.S. military acted intentionally with a specific end in mind and were aware the path to get there would be costly, brutal and deeply painful – our present circumstances.

While my premise is the US military guided events that have brought us to our current circumstances, if my premise is off the mark, for me, the best alternative explanation is that the US military is grossly incompetent.  This I find hard to accept, although open to reader comments that argue that gross incompetence is more plausible than my premise – or propose an entirely different explanation.

If my premise is true, it raises a long-standing philosophical question: ‘does the end justify the means?’

Summary of Plan to Break the Cycle

After attaining global hegemony, the U.S. Military set in motion a plan to destroy their own hegemony. by plunging the world into a global tyranny of brutality without rhyme or reason.  The tyrannical foreign policy of President Bush was so outrageous it ensured the rapid rise of opposition to US domination as a means to accelerate the progression to loss of hegemonic dominance.

The destruction of the unipolar world order is to make way for establishing a bipolar world order of superpower rivalry – US power may have declined, but only to the point of accommodating a near peer as a superpower rival – in this way, the US breaks the cycle by averting collapse that typically follows decline and in fact, the US intends to maintain its superpower status.  The US does not want to follow the fate of the Soviet Union which broke up and was reduced to a regional power – However, Russia as the successor state of the Soviet Union has under Putin risen to great power status.

As hegemonic dominance retreats, many would have thought Russia would rise to replay the role of adversary in a New Cold War.   But Russia was only a placeholder until China was ready to take on the role of adversary – Russia is not anything like the authoritarian Soviet Union despite propaganda efforts to make them comparable.  Russian ideology is no longer communist and although there is some authoritarianism, Russian society has become much more open and outspoken.

China on the other-hand is very much authoritarian and has been aggressive in its foreign policy – for example, the overreaching maritime claims in the South China Sea.  Something else to point out is the name of the one ruling party – the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – and notice the effort by China critics to separate the CCP from the citizenry – George Kennan respected the Russian people but hated the communist government.  The totalitarian nature of CCP rule was splashed across the front pages of newspapers around the globe in response to China’s clamp down on Hong Kong:

Nearly 200 political figures from around the world on Saturday decried Beijing’s proposed national security laws for Hong Kong… policy leaders said the proposed laws are a “comprehensive assault on the city’s autonomy, rule of law and fundamental freedoms” and “flagrant breach” of the Sino-British Joint Declaration that returned Hong Kong to China in 1997. LINK

This ‘Cold War’ language is a classic example of rhetoric in a war of opposing ideologies.  The Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union was primarily a war of opposing ideologies – democracy, open society and free markets (capitalism) versus communist authoritarianism, closed society and centralized command economy.  China, unlike today’s Russia, is quite similar to the Soviet Union in ideology and should be able to step into the old Cold War rival’s shoes with barely a hiccup.

We are at the point now that the conditions for establishing a New Cold War superpower rivalry are quickly falling into place although there are still significant challenges to contend with – in particular is the need for US foreign policy to step back from brinkmanship at the very least with Russia and adopt something akin to Kennan’s Policy of Containment – discussed further in Parts 2 and 3.

This three-part series tackles the question of what role the US military played in taking the US down this path.  In Part 1 I have introduced the main themes.  In Parts 2 and 3, I examine the power and motives of the US military as well as evidence that events were a consequence of military involvement in directing US foreign policy.  I also take the unpopular position of presenting the US military in a more sympathetic light.

The US military is powerful in its own right but is made more powerful when considered as a part of the military-industrial complex (MIC).   As such, the military’s influence on US policy cannot be properly assessed without considering the overall power of the MIC.

A Return to Containment: Kennan and the Responsible Use of Power - Part 1

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The US military-industrial complex (MIC)

Internal power arrangements matter when trying to understand the policies and actions of nation states.  The influence wielded by the U.S. military is derived from the military-Industrial Complex (MIC) which would be the basis of power for the US military to influence US policy.  And so, my focus is on the US MIC and its influence on government decision making – primarily US foreign policy, policy objectives and methods to meet objectives.  I also examine, in varying degrees:

  1. Basis of power, counter-balancing power – also contextual variables and temporal dynamics
  2. Specification of MIC special interests – special interests may conflict with national interests
  3. Geographic scope of power projection – regional power – global power
  4. Scope of military capabilities; for example: nuclear triad, nuclear propulsion, military satellites…
  5. Interaction with structure of the international system (power, security, ideology, alliances)

So that everyone is on the same page as to what is being examined and its origin:

The military-industrial complex is a nation’s military establishment, as well as the industries involved in the production of armaments and other military materials…

the U.S. military kept a large standing army after the Korean War ended in 1953, and maintained a high level of military preparedness due to the ongoing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. 

Private companies that after past wars had gone back to civilian production kept manufacturing armaments, producing increasingly sophisticated weapons in an arms race with the Soviets. LINK

President Eisenhower’s January 1961 farewell address gave warning to the American public of the danger of undue influence of the MIC on US policy-making:

…In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist. LINK

This warning was not coming from someone ignorant of the inner-workings of the military.  Eisenhower was a career military man that rose through the ranks to eventually achieve rank of five-star general as commander of Allied forces in north west Europe (1943-1945).  After Germany’s surrender, Eisenhower was elevated to Army Chief of Staff and later in 1951, became supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) until resigning in 1952 to run for US President.  If there was anyone who knew what they were talking about it would be Eisenhower.

If the power of the MIC to influence policy was trivial, Eisenhower would not have delivered such a speech.

Stewart J. Melanson PhD

Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Email: sjm@melansonwire.com

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