My thoughts on the US-Russian conflict over the INF treaty:
From Chris Bolden:
“This book is a great read! Thoroughly engrossing. The author knows so much about his subject that he makes what we hope is implausible seem frighteningly possible! You feel like you are actually in the room with the characters (many of whom are disturbingly real). I look forward to reading the next book in the series.”
Rogue Republic is now available in hardback, softcover and ebook form. It is a political thriller set in Washington in the near future.
Professor Greta Kurgan has an audacious plan to make America great again by dramatically reshaping global order. She has sold the idea to the national security advisor and secretary of defense. Now they must persuade President Marriott to rubber stamp the plan before he fully realises just what’s to be unleashed.
Only Kurgan’s inner circle are aware of the plan’s shocking culminating moves. A country is to be targeted in an explosive and risky experiment to demonstrate America’s supremacy.
When Major David Tyndale stumbles onto Kurgan’s scheming, all he knows is that an unspecified strategic project is being hatched outside of proper channels. Then the project takes-off, triggering an international emergency which draws him deeper into the tempest. Tyndale works with a small group from the FBI and Defense Intelligence Agency, as well as a gritty journalist, to unearth the conspiracy.
The affair escalates towards a global catastrophe threatening the survival of nations and the lives of millions. Scrambling to keep pace with the unfolding crisis, the Pentagon faces its greatest ever challenge.
It all points to a perfect storm: constitutional crisis, strategic nightmare and humanitarian calamity. Tyndale is determined to halt the slide to disaster. But time and the surge of events are not on his side.
(Please note: this a revision of The Credibility Vortex, published in 2016 as kindle-only.)
Click the link for my thoughts on Trump and the bomb (published in Inside Story)
In July, the UN, with the backing of 122 countries, adopted a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. Optimistic advocates of disarmament believed the move was path-breaking. Sceptics noted that the treaty didn’t remove a single nuclear weapon, and that none of the nine nuclear armed states (US, Russia, UK, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea) showed any constructive interest in the treaty. Some said the treaty represented missed opportunities, believing the energy and politics behind it would have been better spent on more modest and more achievable, more realistic goals (e.g. ensuring nuclear deterrence is made safer, rather than the allegedly futile objective of prohibiting all the weapons for all time). Unsurprisingly, there was a debate over the treaty’s pros and cons, although this was very limited in terms of media coverage.
As for already established arms control, the story was unpromising. The 1970 nuclear weapons non-proliferation treaty (NPT) limped along, full of holes but keeping afloat, more-or-less. And, in a sign of how wildly optimistic the ambitious new UN treaty seems, the comparatively very modest 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has still not entered force because it lacks key ratifications (arguably, over the years the key hold-out here has been the US Senate). Yet the CTBT is good sensible, measured arms control and a precondition for serious progress. Also, strains in the US-Russia relationship put pressure on, among other things, the pivotal 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and both Washington and Moscow are modernising their nuclear plans. On this last point, it’s worth noting that America’s current, costly, nuclear weapons modernisation program was set in motion by President Obama, the same man who won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize after promising to work toward their abolition.
Meanwhile, despite almost universal condemnation, as well as typical Trumpian blustering that he would not allow it, North Korea loudly continued improving its illegal nuclear forces.
In addition, members of the Trump administration remained deeply hostile to the 2015 international agreement (widely welcomed by arms control experts) to manage Iran’s nuclear program. However, these noisy critics offered no clear or convincing ideas about how to replace the existing deal with anything better.
From today’s perspective, the prospects for the new UN treaty look extremely bleak. Perhaps a generational change in world leaders will, in time, make a difference. Or perhaps we will have to wait for the equivalent of a nuclear train crash to see progress (although there’s also a chance a nuclear war might well increase interest in acquiring/keeping nuclear weapons).
Inside Story has just published a piece by me on President Obama’s nuclear record, and what this might mean for President-elect Trump.
Up-date: Please note this version of the novel has been replaced by Rogue Republic.
The Credibility Vortex is available on Kindle (for eReaders, Macs, PCs, iPads, etc).
It’s a political thriller set in Washington. It features intrigue in the National Security Council, rogue officials, dirty tricks, assassination attempts, and the possible end of the world…
From the book description:
At the time, the project seemed compelling. The scheme’s author, Professor Greta Kurgan, could picture the end-game: a dramatic reassertion of America’s global supremacy. She’d already sold the plan to powerful backers – no less than the secretary of defense and the president’s national security advisor – and they now stood ready to roll the dice.
Behind the scenes, the Strategic Paradigms Institute offered support, and the MAXX News Network helped with public relations.
All Kurgan needed was for the National Security Council to provide the rubber-stamp. The only snag was that Project Credibility had to be set in motion before the president and NSC fully realised what they were unleashing.
The full meaning of the project had to be kept under wraps because it was as an explosive experiment. An unfortunate Central Asian country would be the test tube. This set the scene for the most important challenge to American constitutional government since the Civil War and the Pentagon’s greatest ever test of strategic planning. Would Kurgan’s conspiracy be exposed in time to prevent matters spiralling out of control and ending in the biggest man-made disaster in history?
The build up to the 2016 US presidential election has seen a small flurry of articles and interest in US nuclear first-use policy. Many commentators have expressed surprise that the US has, for decades, kept a first-use option on the books.
There’s been much speculation that President Obama might get rid of the first-use option. This would be a final gesture to add some weight to his early promise of moving toward the abolition of nuclear weapons. Speculation has centred on the idea of Obama by-passing Congress and imposing the policy as an executive decision, via his position as commander in chief.
Here are some recent links on the topic, drawn from the media coverage of the election campaign:
For background on Obama’s nuclear policy, see my article from 2012: American Exceptionalism and President Obama’s Call for Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (note, this is a long article).
To coincide with the completion of a draft manuscript of my novel, The Credibility Vortex (recently sent out to a group of readers/critics), I have provided some sources on a central theme of the book: US nuclear strategy.
The particular focus here concerns possible American first-use of nuclear weapons. Washington has repeatedly refused to rule-out this option. Aside from its implications for war planning, this stance has been a persistent theme in US arms control diplomacy for decades. It is a policy position that has been especially noticeable (and, I would say, a noticeable embarrassment) at several international review conferences of the nuclear weapons non-proliferation treaty (NPT).
The topic has been a longstanding interest of mine, it was a key issue in my post-graduate research, as well as the subject of academic journal articles, such as:
Andy Butfoy, ‘Washington’s Apparent Readiness to Start Nuclear War’, Survival, October-November 2008.
Andy Butfoy, ‘Perpetuating US Nuclear First-Use into the Indefinite Future: Reckless Inertia or Pillar of World Order?’, Contemporary Security Policy, August 2002.
Many people are surprised to hear that the US insists on a “right” to initiate nuclear escalation. They are often even more surprised to hear that President Obama, while backing away from the more alarming rhetoric of President George W. Bush, would not rule-out American nuclear first use (and has made smaller cuts to the US nuclear arsenal than his predecessor). For an examination of the factors at work here, see:
Andy Butfoy, ‘American Exceptionalism and President Obama’s Call for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons’, Contemporary Security Policy, December 2012.
Alas, copyright restrictions prevent me from putting these articles on-line. Those of you fortunate enough to have university library access will find it easy to get copies. Fortunately there is much information on the issue which is freely available. For example, see the following study of so-called ‘tactical nuclear weapons’ (often singled-out as likely candidates for first-use, especially during the Cold War). It was produced by the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College:
New documents dealing with the risk of a nuclear World War Three arising from the Cold War conflict between Moscow and NATO have been published. The focus of the new papers is a 1983 NATO exercise called ABLE ARCHER. This included testing arrangements for transmitting nuclear release orders. The Soviet Union read this as possible preparation and cover for an American first-strike. In response, Moscow considered preemption, consequently it raised its nuclear alert level. Thus the scene was set for a disastrous chain of escalation. Fortunately, the crisis was resolved by, among other things, a senior US Air Force Intelligence Officer (Lt. Gen. Peroots) deciding – on his own initiative – not to elevate American war readiness in response to the higher Soviet alert levels.
The outline of the story is familiar to strategic analysts/historians. But it was only this month, after decades of semi-official denials, that the details have been confirmed and declassified. See this link:
More documents at: NSA archive on Able Archer
The issue is of particular interest to me because my PhD was on the relationship between politics and conventional/nuclear war planning. Most NATO and Soviet planning for World War Three assumed escalation from conventional to nuclear conflict arising from a crisis in Germany (or sometimes Norway or Turkey). ABLE ARCHER was a test of the pointy end of preparation for what could have led to the end of the world.
News that Prime Minister Abbott is considering launching airstrikes into Syria calls for a strategic review.
On the one hand, if the claim that islamist fighters (especially in their IS form) truly represent the greatest threat since the Second World War is accurate, then Abbott is being shockingly negligent in committing only a fraction of our military to deal with the peril. If civilisation, world order, and national survival are at stake we ought to be doing massively more. We should, for example, raise taxes very significantly to make a much larger military contribution, one commensurate with the supposed danger.
On the other hand, the government could step back from its noisy politicking and engage in more measured strategic thinking. This would require sensible perspective rather than rabble-rousing, and would recognise at least five interrelated points.
First, we still have unfinished business in Afghanistan and Iraq going all the way back to 2001 and 2003. Unsuccessful involvement in two decade-long civil wars would give most nations pause for reflection, rather than spur them on to rumble into a third adventure.
Second, the ADF can only ever be a bit player in transforming the Middle East. Although we have an obligation to assist (having helped create the mess in 2003), this should be on a selective basis. Better to have the ADF do a limited task in Iraq relatively effectively, rather than spreading its resources too thinly in a war without limit and inadequate reflection.
Abbott seems to believe the cause self evidently requires us to drop more bombs without thinking too hard about what we are doing. But if there really is a strategic imperative to militarily go after islamist fighters wherever they are to be found, why stop at Syria? Why not Yemen, Libya, northern Nigeria, etc? Where does the Putin of Oz want to draw the line?
Third, why not keep to clear limits in terms of international law? Support for the Iraqi government is one thing, and is almost universally seen as legal. But who would we be supporting in Syria? A sound legal position requires a clear answer. Would we side with the current Syrian government, which the West has wanted to undermine for years, one complicit in mass murder of its civilians? Or some one else. Who? And, to cycle back to an earlier point, if this alternative entity is worthy of our support, why send only a half dozen or so aircraft to drop a few bombs? To what effect in terms of building a new Syria?
The aim of international law (much ridiculed by right wingers for being imperfect, although they have no idea how to replace it with anything better) is to put limits on behaviour. Abbott appears ready to shove this concept aside. But why stretch the legal boundaries beyond their intended purpose for the sake of an almost meaningless strategic impact in Syria?
Fourth, even the dumbest armchair warrior and the most desperate Churchill wannabe ought to realise the West’s problem in Syria isn’t lack of airpower. Look at the stats. Employment of 10% of the West’s combat aircraft would probably crowd-out Syrian airspace, run out of meaningful targets within an afternoon, and inadvertently escalate the killing of civilians.
Fifth, what does the end-game look like? I’ll give you a hint: the government hasn’t got a clue.
We need to look beyond the apparent flag-waving and chest-thumping politicisation of defence policy which currently seems to be driving government decision making. A start would be a review of how we arrived at this mess. That would require introspection and an inquiry into policy decisions since at least the 1990s. Alas, I don’t see any hairy-chested government MPs signing up for that particular fight.