In the last day, your administration has talked of winding down the coronavirus task force and now you’ve said it will continue indefinitely. Will you be at the meetings and briefings? Or will you speak separately, and undercut or contradict your experts?
So many of my military colleagues have tried to help, and all understand that you don’t take criticism, and even suggestions are poorly received. But the United States needs real leadership now, and others around the world are also looking to us. So, as someone who has spent most of my life leading, studying or teaching leadership, may I respectfully offer some observations that may be helpful? And may I speak frankly? This might be your last chance to get it right.
First point, leaders have to gain trust. It doesn’t come automatically with the office. You have to earn it by your performance. The public must see and believe that your public duties come first, before every other interest — business, friends, or even family. And in the case of this medical emergency, before your re-election, too! When you worry about polls and rallies, you’re undercutting the public’s trust and faith in your leadership.
Another thing about trust: be careful what you say. Any statements later proven false will hurt your reputation. Don’t blurt out observations and possibilities — we know you were just thinking out loud about the bleach and disinfectants — but every statement you make is going to be judged. That is the burden of leadership. You can’t be flip-flopping on what you say — and, honestly, you would be the first to point that out in an opponent. You cannot lead if people cannot trust you.
Second, leaders have to have a strategy and a plan to get there. You’re absolutely right to recognize that ultimately, we have to be able to reopen the economy. And you gave us a pretty good strategy for reopening the country while we wait for the vaccine — but you seem to be undercutting your own strategy by encouraging protesters to demonstrate for an earlier opening. Why undercut your own strategy? Unless you’re slyly pushing to open the economy earlier in order to have good “numbers” for your reelection. Of course, this goes back to the trust issue.
Mr. President, if you deal successfully with Covid-19, you will likely be reelected. If you prematurely push opening of the economy, and the US lurches into repetitive spikes of Covid-19, you will likely not be re-elected, so, first things first.
Third, leaders accept their responsibilities. You are America’s highest elected official: the whole executive branch works for you, and anything they do or say is ultimately your responsibility. No one expects you to be perfect, but as the sign on Harry Truman’s desk famously pointed out, “the buck stops here.” Admit some mistakes, or acknowledge that your projections or views have changed, and explain why. If you dodge responsibilities now, you won’t be able to claim credit when we win this struggle. And by the way, stop blaming your predecessors — that makes you look small, and you sure don’t want that.
Fourth, top level leaders aren’t expected to know everything — but they are expected to bring in the right experts and use their expertise. Your experts are constantly dodging and weaving around your public statements. It’s obvious you have them on a razor’s edge of intimidation and fear. You have all the power — you don’t need to lead that way. When they give you inaccurate information or disproven projections, replace them, and hold them accountable, but otherwise, put them out front to discuss the technicalities, and don’t dispute, correct, or go beyond them in public.
Fifth, leaders show empathy in times of trouble. Already American losses are staggering in personal terms, and many of these losses are among your blue-collar supporters. These people have families, loved ones, friends, and colleagues who expect your empathy, and if they have a sense that these losses are nothing but a “number standing in the way of your reelection,” they will hold you personally accountable. Show empathy everyday, visit the families, talk to the doctors and nurses on the front lines, console, console, console — this is what leadership demands.
Sixth, good leaders pull their teams together. To some extent, you have carved out a new political model for modern America, built on supercharging your base, at the expense of others in the electorate, as well as delivering the “goods” in terms of judgeships, deregulation and tax cuts. It worked well enough to get you elected, and to keep money coming into your election campaign. But in this crisis, as we say in my part of the country, “that dog won’t hunt.” You now have to lead a country, not win an election, and you know it. The United States, every one of us, is your “team,” whether it is in maintaining social distance, pushing forward innovative solutions, or helping to work the logistics of meatpacking or supplying face masks — and whether they are Democrats or Republicans.
Please, don’t seek out more enemies — it only hurts everyone. While the federal government rightly relies on the states for an assessment and response to local conditions, this is your opportunity to go beyond partisanship and pull the country together. Please stop the silly competition with those Democratic governors — it totally undercuts you and your Administration. You could be so much more effective if you brought them onto your team and built mutual respect.
Seventh, good leaders lead by example. So, if you want people to wear face masks, wear a face mask. The Honeywell visit Tuesday was good, but you vitiated its success by not publicly wearing a mask. And of course, the press made a big deal of it, because they believe you’re one of those “do as I say, not as I do” leaders — and that goes back to the trust issue again.
Eighth, good leaders have a thick skin, at least in public. They don’t allow their fears, resentments, or unscripted anger to show — it’s about control. In private, sure, they get mad, they nurse their wounded pride, and they try to learn from every event and comment, and move on. As we used to say in the military, “don’t wear your heart on your sleeve,” where it gets bruised and bumped constantly. So please, stop swatting back at every comment that hurts you — that may work to get a Twitter following, as entertainment, but it is not an effective way to lead.
So, Mr. President, I know this advice sounds harsh, and it’s painful, but you are a wily strategist, a fact that your opponents often misunderstand. You are also an able negotiator, as you most recently proved by making the deal for the 10 million barrels per day cut in oil output. And you are very tough and resilient. Those are all good qualities. But you cannot be an effective leader without relentless and painful self-examination. Take it in or reject it, after due consideration.
My aim in writing this is to help you, because today, the United States and indeed, the whole world, needs leadership — and though some may not like it, you’re the man. We ALL need you at your best!
Applying the experiences of the Cold War to the United States’ present circumstances suggests that a renewed strategy of containment, backed by a nuclear deterrent, will face substantial obstacles.
One daunting challenge is the prospect of a new arms race. While the Cold War began with U.S. nuclear superiority and ended with rough strategic parity, Russia retained its full range of tactical nuclear weapons, with an estimated 2,500 warheads. In addition, while the United States has suspended most of its nuclear weapons development, Russia continues to develop the means to make weapons more usable. Russian tactical nuclear weapons today may well include artillery and rocket-delivered tactical neutron weapons, which would, by design, have less blast and thermal effects but a greater initial neutron pulse, making them far more usable in warfighting than older weapons. At the tactical level, the only U.S. or NATO response to such weapons would be nuclear bombs delivered by F-16 or comparable aircraft, which would likely have difficulty coping with modernized Russian air defense.
At the strategic level, while the United States has maintained its triad of nuclear capable bombers, submarine launched ballistic missiles, and silo-based ICBMs, both Russia and China have developed new delivery systems; for Russia, these include a new family of road-mobile ICBMs and a few upgraded bombers armed with supersonic missiles, while China is developing a number of road-mobile solid fuel ICBM’s concealed across central China, as well as a few submarine-launched systems. Furthermore, while the United States is working on updating its manned bomber fleet and a rudimentary missile defense system oriented against relatively unsophisticated North Korean threats, Russia and China have unveiled plans for several new strategic systems, including hypersonic weapons and nuclear-armed unmanned underwater systems.
The combination of Russian tactical systems and new Russian strategic systems threatens to decouple the United States from its alliance commitments. Russian tactical systems make nuclear use “thinkable” at the tactical level, as has been evident in several Russian exercises. This is the so-called “escalation to deescalate.” Russian doctrine explicitly contemplates a first use of nuclear weapons. What makes this especially destabilizing, however, is that the new Russian strategic systems—especially their undersea drone with multimegaton weapons, which is currently under development—might lead Russia to believe that, in a crisis, or after first nuclear use in Europe, the United States might indeed withdraw, back away, or otherwise fail to follow through on its commitments to allies.
In addition, new technologies pose strategic threats to the United States in a time of extreme crisis. If not defended against, cyber technologies could cripple key elements of the American economy like transportation, electric power, finance, and petrochemicals. The electric grid itself is extremely vulnerable to an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP), which could be generated by a single high-altitude nuclear burst or strategically placed special conventional weapons. Even if key defense assets were protected, an EMP could fatally cripple the United States, leaving three hundred million people without power or a means of survival.
Russia and China can use the more open and interconnected global environment to gain power and reduce the economic, commercial, and political advantages we enjoyed during the Cold War. With the exception of North Korea, the most urgent problem the United States must now confront is not the likelihood of a direct invasion that would threaten U.S. allies or the U.S. homeland, but rather the expansion of Russian or Chinese influence into both neutral and allied countries. Not unlike during the Cold War, the Russian expansion of air defenses and military basing in Syria, air defense and advisors in Venezuela, military assistance to Egypt and to Libyan warlord General Haftar, and even the sale of SA400 air defense systems to Turkey establish Russian relationships that undercut American interests, potentially threaten allies, and ultimately erode the power and influence of the United States. Even NATO member Turkey risks forfeiting its allies in the West. As their relationships with Russia grow, countries fall implicitly within the sphere protected by Russian military forces, where U.S. forces cannot intervene without fear of collision with Russian forces. The delicate dance of U.S. and Russian airpower in Syria since 2015 was managed without a major air-to-air confrontation, but Russian air defense emplacements have steadily expanded the no-go areas for U.S. and Israeli aircraft.
China, meanwhile, has moved aggressively to claim the South China Sea by building airfields on deserted atolls, emplacing weaponry, and ignoring the subsequent international legal judgments. China’s expansion began with fishing vessels, followed by armed coast guard vessels, and eventually warships and construction. Meanwhile, the growth of Chinese blue water capabilities coincides with a “string of pearls” of bases stretching from southwest Cambodia to Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Djibouti.
Unlike the Cold War, both Russian and Chinese expansionism today are undergirded by investments. Russian funds in British institutions, and investments in British real estate and business, exert a strong pull on British domestic and foreign policy. Russian investments are also present on Wall Street, in South Florida, and in some states that elect especially influential representatives to the U.S. Congress, like Kentucky. Russia also aims at energy dominance in Western Europe, both from the north, with the Nordstream 2 pipeline, and from the south, with the proposed reconstruction of Syria’s oil and pipelines and a gas pipeline into Turkey.
For years, China has sponsored railroads and other infrastructure through loans to developing countries in Asia and Africa. No Western government can match these loans. Chinese financing has also recently been incorporated into China’s strategic One Belt One Road Program. Chinese funds have penetrated deeply into Eastern Europe and increasingly into Hungary and Italy, as well as in Latin America and the Caribbean. In combination with lower-priced Chinese technology providers like ZTE and Huawei, Chinese infrastructure investments and trade opportunities have already undercut U.S. influence in much of the world. The pull of Chinese markets has also been a substantial influence on U.S. foreign policy for more than two decades, and this has been reinforced by the influence of three decades of Chinese students and scholars at American universities. Overall, it has been difficult for the United States and Europe to recognize the “whole of society” approach the Chinese have taken to expanding their influence. It is also difficult for Americans to realize the consequences of facing a strategic competitor with four times the population and an economy already at purchasing power parity with the United States—not to mention one that is growing twice as fast.
China, Russia and other countries are moving to offset the enormous power of the U.S. dollar, and the U.S. Treasury. Efforts to circumvent sanctions and financial controls have multiplied, with China seeking to make the RNB a global convertible currency and other nations, including allies, looking for other baskets of currencies for use in international trade. Commercial crypto-currencies open channels for money-laundering and other transactions that pose a powerful threat to US global power.
In contrast to the Cold War period, today both Russia and China have vigorous, strategic leadership. Vladimir Putin is nearing twenty years in power, and has built a formidable supporting structure of oligarchs, intelligence, a reformed and reinvigorated military, and an array of friends and supporters outside Russia. His aims have been public: to reestablish the Soviet space, and to reduce American influence in the world. Xi Jinping is completing his tenth year at the top of an increasingly centralized Communist Party and state. He has articulated his fears of Western democratic values in Chinese Party Directive #9, calling it the greatest threat China faces. He and his strategists have made clear China’s determination to extend its control through “the first island chain” as a near term objective, displacing the United States and eventually dominating the Western Pacific, including Guam and the “second island chain.” He has refused to rule out the use of force to gain control of Taiwan, but of course China’s aim is “to win without fighting.”
Both China and Russia use sophisticated information and cyber techniques to further their efforts. At the strategic level, Russian and Chinese social media intrusions impact democratic governance by undercutting faith in institutions and leaders, seeking to intensify divisions on political, economic, and social issues, and in general seeking to destroy the legitimacy of Western democratic systems. Enhanced internet communications, cellular technologies, and social media provide valuable attack vectors.
The United States is facing hard choices: will it willingly fall back toward its continental boundaries, loosening its alliances and surrendering its influence in global institutions, and accept China’s leadership and Russia’s increasing role in Europe, Asia the Mideast Africa and Latin America? Will it challenge that influence, reshaping its priorities and strengthening its institutions and its alliances in an attempt to retain its power? Or will it merely use U.S. military power to challenge reactively—through intimidation, military threat, or small-scale military action—the emerging constellation of forces against it?
Confronting the Future
Today, the U.S. strategy is inchoate. U.S. national strategy correctly understands the challenges; individual services are reorienting away from almost two decades of counterinsurgency, and renewed attention is being directed toward the U.S. strategic deterrent. At the same time, however, the United States still relies excessively on military instruments of power, while lacking essential economic means, and failing to use existing diplomatic and legal tools. The current U.S. president is, himself, conflicted. On the one hand, he advocates for a stronger military, and is seemingly eager to deal with threats. At the same time, he has expressed to his followers an intention to pull back American forces, challenging American allies and questioning the value of the alliances, institutions, and arrangements—all of which have given the United States much of its global influence.
As a result, the Cold War U.S. strategy of containment is now being applied against the United States itself. Against the Russian and Chinese strategies—characterized by what some call salami tactics, with each move calculated to be below the level at which the U.S. military could respond with force—bold U.S. military deployments and exercises will likely be inadequate. Moreover, should the United States succeed in pushing back against Chinese and Russia presence by some combination of military threat and diplomacy, China and Russia may well use force to maintain their presence. Indeed, during the Cold War, both Russia and China did use force—China against the United States, Vietnam, and Russia, and the Soviet Union in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan—and used it most aggressively when their gains and achievements were threatened.
U.S. missteps could place the United States in the same situation vis-à-vis Russia and China as the Soviet Union found itself in 1962 in Cuba, as reckless overreliance on military means could run up against the hard threat of a nuclear response and result in a U.S. withdrawal.
Facing these challenges, the United States must modernize its deterrent. This requires modernized delivery systems to assure that air launched missiles can penetrate Russian airspace, a development which likely requires hypersonic capabilities. U.S. ballistic nuclear submarines must be taken to the next level of stealth, with newer, quieter propulsion and more up-to-date materials. U.S. ballistic missiles remain the most vulnerable element of the Triad. This aging force requires a clear launch-on-warning policy. It must either receive protection by defensive systems, be replaced by road-mobile systems that could confound targeting, or be removed from the Triad.
In order to maintain “coupling” to allies and forward deployed forces, nuclear warheads must be modernized. The so-called small warhead must be developed and deployed to answer to Russian tactical and theater capabilities without resorting to our strategic deterrent. The current “dual-capable aircraft,” with several dozen aircraft-delivered nuclear weapons, will lack credibility in a crisis against modern Russian air defense. Submarine-launched ballistic missiles used early in a conflict will likely be perceived as a strategic response. Thus, some kind of long-range, land-based, nuclear capable missile is required and must be forward deployed prior to a crisis.
In addition to existing ballistic missile defense systems oriented against North Korean and potential Iranian threats, protection of the United States from the threatened Russian autonomous undersea drone with megaton warheads must be given additional priority.
Finally, continuing emphasis must be placed on space-based intelligence and communications, as well as the cyber protection of data, communications, and planning and operational systems. This will require new investments in satellite redundancy and defensive measures, as well as continuing participation in daily cyber-jousting with hostile state actors. Selective investments must also be made to counter EMP threats.
It is worth noting, however, that, in the United States, far too much attention is directed at military means. Nuclear modernization does impact defense spending, and it is a particular lightning rod for propaganda and fake news from potential adversaries. However, it is the non-military efforts which will be more significant in sustaining American power and influence in the world, and in avoiding the slide into crisis in which military force is likely to be used.
Of course, the United States still enjoys broad advantages in the appeal of its values, laws, and society. There is no push to immigrate to Russia or China comparable to the never-ending stream of would-be immigrants seeking to become Americans. This soft power is vitally important. According to a Chinese propaganda ministry official, “China wants to invest in [the U.S.] movie industry, so China can understand how to make the world love China as it loves America.” American values and standards of living, and the perception of America as the “land of opportunity,” still dominate global opinion. We must continue to strive to live up to these values, and to protect ourselves from the continuing threat of Russian and Chinese hybrid warfare which uses our own values to attack our democracy from within.
The United States must also recognize that China, in particular, presents a formidable institutional challenge as an example of an alternative system of government: technocratic authoritarianism. Without a profound resurgence in American domestic investment in infrastructure, education, health, and the population’s social mobility, we cannot expect to maintain our soft power advantages.
America’s economic power must also be more adroitly deployed abroad in service of American national interests; this requires a new set of tools as well as new understandings with businesses. To engage successfully in contested spaces, and avoid the erosion of its relationships with friends and allies, the United States must empower its business community to work abroad on behalf of U.S. interests. Today, large American businesses work for their own profits rather than for the larger national interest, and the tens of thousands of American entrepreneurs who would gladly surge abroad in pursuit of infrastructure projects in power, water, and health lack access to the financial resources to succeed.
American entrepreneurs need access to small packages of development capital, as well as government insured debt instruments, unencumbered by commercial restrictions imposed by Congress. These grants and loans must be made precisely to those who would not qualify for commercial equity and credit, but who could instead be seen as long-term strategic instruments, generating a new type of person-to-person power in host countries. With these tools, Americans can create businesses, develop infrastructure, and work effectively to counter Chinese state-owned enterprises, as well as Russian investments. Some efforts will succeed and yield sizeable returns, in which case the United States deserves some of the proceeds; many more may struggle. These efforts are like a twenty-first century Peace Corps—building the infrastructure and relationships that bind nations to the United States.
Beyond the start-ups and entrepreneurs, large, established American businesses should appreciate the protection of the United States. In the aftermath of the Cold War, many of these businesses have acted as though they are themselves sovereign, maneuvering through tax laws and seeking out locations with no greater aim than to provide the greatest returns to their shareholders. To contest the economic power of China and Russia, the United States will have to work to alter its business leaders’ responsibilities. Leaders of these major corporations should be encouraged to gain the perspective of U.S. national needs through attendance at U.S. service schools and institutes, and through periodic personnel exchanges with government agencies. They should be expected to assist the United States when called upon.
Today, globalism is being replaced by a new nationalism, and the open, transparent international system to which we have aspired—and which seemed so real when the United States was the lone superpower—is fading. Russia and China have emerged as a new bloc shaped by resentment of, and resistance to, the United States and, as such, the United States must adapt militarily, strategically, and economically to this new reality. In this new era, deterrence and containment will require new means and increasingly sophisticated measures in order to succeed.
Wesley K. Clark is a businessman, educator, writer, and commentator. General Clark serves as chairman and CEO of Wesley K. Clark & Associates, a strategic consulting firm; chairman and founder of Enverra, Inc. a licensed investment bank; chairman of Energy Security Partners, LLC; as well as numerous corporate boards including BNK Petroleum and Leagold Mining. In the not-for-profit space, he is a Senior Fellow at UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations, Director of the Atlantic Council, Founding Chair of City Year Little Rock/North Little Rock, and President of Renew America Together. Clark retired as a four-star general after thirty-eight years in the United States Army, having served as Commander of U.S. Southern Command and then as Commander of U.S. European Command/Supreme Allied Commander, Europe in his last assignments. He graduated first in his class at West Point and completed degrees in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar. His awards include the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and honorary knighthoods from the British and Dutch governments.
Today, the United States finds itself facing two near-peer competitors in Russia and China. Both are asserting their power and exhibiting expansionist tendencies. Both understand the logic of the Cold War period, the U.S. strategy of containment, and the U.S. concept of deterrence, but neither is likely to precisely replay the moves that led to the United States’ emergence as the lone global superpower. Indeed, both are determined to use the lessons of the Cold War, and our own misinterpretation of them, to their advantage.
Expansionism ultimately rests on military power as its foundation. Russia has rebuilt its military, fitting it into a concept of hybrid warfare that includes cyber attacks, intimidation, interference in elections, spreading false information and malicious rumors, corrupting politicians, and fledgling institutions of government to regain its control of the “near abroad.” At the same time, it has created an expeditionary military capability, prominently on display in Syria. Russia has also deployed, and is still developing, an upgraded nuclear force consisting of refurbished long-range strike assets, as well as a new class of low-yield and more useful tactical nuclear weapons. This new class of battlefield nuclear weapons has enabled a new Russian military doctrine called “escalating to deescalate”—that is, to use these nuclear weapons to terminate a conflict by challenging NATO or the United States to either give in or escalate to strategic nuclear destruction in response to battlefield setbacks. This doctrine suggests that nuclear weapons are more likely to be used in a future conflict.
China is also greatly enhancing its military capabilities, investing in new long-range strategic nuclear forces, agile anti-ship nuclear capable long-range ballistic missiles, stealth aircraft, modern air defense, counter-satellite capabilities, cyber weapons, and a blue water navy to be built around a force of aircraft carriers. Under Xi Jinping’s China Dream, China has built a serious of armed atolls to extend its reach into the South China Sea, and is asserting its influence through economic suasion and intimidation among its neighbors in Asia. Chinese writings have been clear in aiming to disrupt American alliances in the Pacific and push American forces back east of the “first and second island chains,” essentially isolating America’s allies in the Western Pacific.
The United States is well aware of these challenges, and has issued both a 2017 National Security Strategy and a 2017 National Defense Strategy in response. The latter was followed by a bipartisan commission to examine the National Defense Strategy. All of these documents call for a reliance on nuclear weapons and invoke the concept of nuclear deterrence in pursuit of what is essentially an effort to rebuild “containment” in a wholly different era.
It is from this perspective that a renewed examination of the Cold War’s lessons of deterrence—partially learned, half forgotten, and too often misunderstood—is required. And what we will find is that nuclear deterrence, as an academic concept, is inadequate to guide U.S. strategy.
What Was Nuclear Deterrence?
The theory of nuclear deterrence began with the academic writings of famed strategist Bernard Brodie, along with others, including Herman Kahn and Thomas Schelling, who further refined the concept. Deterrence rested on the belief that nuclear war would be so destructive that no adversary could hope to win. So long as U.S. nuclear forces were able to withstand an adversary’s surprise first strike and respond with overwhelming destructive power, and the potential adversary believed that the U.S. had the will to use these forces, then logically there should be no major war. Deterrence was an exercise in rationality. It seemed a happy paradox of the twentieth century that nuclear weapons were essential in executing a strategy of “containment” without ever actually being used for the purposes of warfare.
For the military, nuclear weapons at first seemed an extension of the strategic bombing of World War II, especially as applied against cities such as Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo, as the aim was essentially to destroy industrial infrastructure and capability, and to break down the will of the population to resist. Under President Eisenhower, “massive retaliation” was a formal policy threatening an aggressor state with overwhelming destruction. A Strategic Air Command was created, built around a force of B-47, B-52 and B-58 bombers, along with air-to-air refueling assets. The Navy developed its own nuclear strike capabilities on aircraft carriers; the Army developed the 280mm “atomic” cannon to fire nuclear artillery shells, and reorganized its forces into “Pentomic” divisions.
As the Soviet Union built its own nuclear capabilities, there was continual exchange between academics, the policymakers, and practitioners. Deterrence theory was refined. City-busting raised strong moral issues, and the United States began to experiment with targeting policy; could it be “counterforce,” rather than “counter-value?” This targeting approach, of course, required not only high degrees of accuracy, but also exquisite knowledge of Soviet forces and locations. There was also “extended deterrence” to protect allies, as well as “crisis deterrence” or “crisis stability” to denote whether, as tensions escalated, the U.S. deterrent was still sufficiently survivable in the event of a first strike, and to avoid the destabilizing “launch on warning” policy. To assure this kind of a stable and survivable deterrent, the United States adopted a “nuclear triad” of land-based air missiles, strategic bombers, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The Soviets also used a triad, but placed great reliance on road-mobile missiles to assure survivability. The United States, on the other hand, considered but ultimately rejected rail and road mobile land-based ICBMs. Both sides nominally gave up their efforts to create anti-missile forces under the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, so they were, at least in practice, reliant on what became known as “mutual assured destruction.” Some theorists in the United States went further, to push for the concept of “minimum deterrence.”
In the end, the United States never went to war with the Soviet Union, both the Soviets and the Chinese were largely contained, and both sides had nuclear weapons. Yet, the impact of nuclear deterrence was far more complex than these three measures of success.
Cold War Lessons Learned
Containment was a messy and expensive strategy, and U.S. success in the Cold War came as much by accident as by design. The Cold War was a time of continuing competition, crises, and conflict. Nuclear deterrence was but one factor that contributed to the eventual outcome.
The ideological competition began immediately after the end of World War II, with the Soviet Union championing its victory as a mark of the success of Marxism-Leninism and subsequently promoting pro-Soviet coups and government takeovers in Eastern Europe, as well as efforts to capture new nationalist movements in the developing world. The United States fought back with its zeal for decolonization, the Marshall Plan, and a variety of other measures like the Fulbright scholarship program to contrast the success of democratic capitalism with Marxism-Leninism. U.S. allies had their own perspectives, with West Germany pushing for deeper engagement with the East (Ostpolitik), and France advocating a more independent defense policy (tous azimuts) while still remaining part of NATO’s political structure. U.S. nuclear weapons presented a key target for Soviet propaganda and disinformation in this long campaign, creating frictions within NATO, as well as political vulnerabilities in most NATO member countries. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, strategic arms treaties, and a theater nuclear treaty, in addition to the eventual Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, were all part of the American effort to keep the moral high ground in the continuing ideological competition between East and West.
In 1949, despite U.S. military assistance, China fell to the Mao Tse Tung’s Communist Party in a sweeping final military campaign. By 1960, the French government had lost its colonial war against Communist nationalists in both Indochina and Algeria. The United Kingdom succeeded in putting down a Communist-led insurgency in Malaya, while the United States fought to a draw against Communist North Korea and China, and suffered a tragic defeat in South Vietnam against the Soviet and Chinese-supported North. Wars by proxy were waged in a dozen countries across Asia and Africa, including bitter fighting by the Soviets against the U.S.-supported Afghan Mujahideen. Nuclear weapons were not actually employed in any of these conflicts, but they did help limit direct U.S.-Soviet conflict, which both sides understood might escalate into a nuclear war.
There were several crises between the Soviet Union and the United States which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, but which stopped short of conflict; these included disputes over access to Berlin in 1961, Soviet efforts to deploy nuclear missiles to Cuba in 1962, and Soviet fears of a U.S. first strike, which arose from a new president’s strong rhetoric and a NATO nuclear exercise. There were other crises between the Soviet Union and the West, such as in Suez and Hungary in 1956, and with the Soviet military occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968. In each, nuclear weapons played a catalyzing role in escalating fears and bounding possible outcomes. From these crises emerged a greater understanding of each actor’s vital interests, and demonstrated how far from the homeland a nation’s nuclear deterrence could be extended.
The Cold War was also marked by an arms race, which undercut U.S. nuclear superiority at first and, by the late 1960s, threatened stability. Nuclear weapons became more powerful, growing from kilotons to megatons-equivalent of TNT. Intercontinental ballistic missiles bypassed air defenses, reinforcing the idea that no one could win a nuclear war. When ballistic missile defenses threatened the “assured destruction” upon which deterrence depended, a treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union capped this line of competition. Later, as the Soviet Union’s programs for actually winning a nuclear war became more widely understood, U.S. President Ronald Reagan questioned reliance on mutual destruction, and therefore sought actual defenses against nuclear threats through his “Star Wars” program. This decades-long nuclear arms race was both expensive and politically challenging for the United States; in response to worldwide criticism, the United States joined with the Soviet Union in the 1962 Test Ban Treaty, and, in 1983, unilaterally denounced Soviet efforts to build third-generation nuclear weapons such as the so-called neutron bomb, which would have made smaller nuclear weapons much more usable on a battlefield.
The Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, a function of both relative economic failure and moral resolve. Looking back, the Soviet Union’s collapse seems inevitable, but a hodge-podge of Soviet strategies, policies, and problems were crucial contributors. Among these factors were an aging, often ill Soviet leadership, haunted by memories of World War II (Kosygin, Brezhnev, Andropov); the extraordinary level of Soviet defense expenditures (up to 25% of GDP); over twenty years of bitter competition with Mao Tse Tung’s Communist China; the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s clumsy efforts to open the party and promote institutional reform (perestroika). The U.S. policy of containment, and the nuclear deterrent which backed it, were a necessary but insufficient factor in explaining the ultimate outcome.
Wesley K. Clark is a businessman, educator, writer, and commentator. General Clark serves as chairman and CEO of Wesley K. Clark & Associates, a strategic consulting firm; chairman and founder of Enverra, Inc. a licensed investment bank; chairman of Energy Security Partners, LLC; as well as numerous corporate boards including BNK Petroleum and Leagold Mining. In the not-for-profit space, he is a Senior Fellow at UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations, Director of the Atlantic Council, and Founding Chair of City Year Little Rock/North Little Rock, and President of Renew America Together. Clark retired as a four-star general after thirty-eight years in the United States Army, having served as Commander of U.S. Southern Command and then as Commander of U.S. European Command/Supreme Allied Commander, Europe in his last assignments. He graduated first in his class at West Point and completed degrees in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar. His awards include the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and honorary knighthoods from the British and Dutch governments.
On Wednesday and Thursday at the NBC-hosted debates in Miami, the Democratic candidates for President will be at their best – in the head-to-head contest to publicize their biographies and policy proposals, to distinguish themselves from others seeking the nomination and above all to win public acclaim! They will especially seek the “viral moments,” the quick ripostes, the put-downs, and the “gotchas” that have made previous debates so memorable.
But will they touch on the big issues that keep Americans up at night, or should?
The endless war on terrorism; the ubiquitous spread of social media, the disappearance of privacy and the spread of fake news; the perils of a debt-fueled economy; tensions with China; and perhaps the most urgent, climate change.
You don’t need to be a Democrat or a Republican to know that these are pressing issues, and that we are all in it together.
That’s why I’ve formed Renew America Together. We’re looking at the election process as a whole – how we pick our leaders in a competitive slug-fest that has huge implications not only for the United States but for the whole world. While the candidates may mostly talk about “bread and butter” issues – like health care, jobs and wages, education, the rest of the world is asking: who will be the most reliable leader for NATO; who will stand up for the billions worldwide who seek a better life and look to the values and image of America as their best hope; who can best lead humanity to deal with the enormous challenges of the 21st Century?
We hope the American public and our electorate can see through the spectacle of so many well-qualified and distinguished men and women on stage, pitted against each other and the moderators, to understand the more significant issues at play.
The United States is the world’s premier democracy and has been on a 70-year pedestal of admiration from friends and attack by potential adversaries. However, today all over the world, people are asking, “is democracy the right system to bring humankind forward in the 21st century?”
They are asking- can voters, the average American, understand the difficult choices that run beyond personalities and incumbencies, that take decades to play out? Can Americans pick the right leaders? Can Americans support wise policies? Can Americans rise beyond narrow self-interest?
The challenges are manifold:
-After almost twenty years, the United States is still at war with terrorists, with hundreds of thousands of troops deployed abroad. Do we have the right policies and instruments to deal with this challenge?
-The internet and smartphones have made the world so small, and technology is still advancing rapidly – into 5G, and facial recognition, crypto-currencies, social media, artificial intelligence, fake news…how do we capture the benefits of advancing technology without sacrificing our privacy, our security, our economy and the very essence of our humanity
– The economy has continued to grow, but it is perilously fueled by debt, and the distribution of wealth and income has grown increasingly inequitable. Big companies get bigger, start-ups and innovators are often smothered, and the great visions, like those which government has in the past supported – the interstate highway system, the space program – seem increasingly unattainable. Americans and foreign visitors alike ask, why can’t America fix its bridges, tunnels, and airports? How will America address, its endemic poverty, failing health care and public education systems, and combat systematic racial discrimination?
– China is moving to dominate the world economy and creating new institutions to replace those America created in our image some seventy years ago. How can America handle a country with four times the population, two or three times the annual growth rate, bustling with ambition, and supercharged with determination to reclaim its historic role as the most advanced and wealthiest of nations? Will it lead to war?
– And the most profound challenge of all: can we transition a 200-year-old dependence on carbon fuels into new energy sources which are sustainable and can lead us into a carbon neutral and even carbon negative environment to preserve the climate and ecosphere which has nurtured humanity for ten thousand years? How do we replace billions of automobiles and millions of trucks- changing the means of transportation, agriculture, power generation, industrial production?
For the American voters, and for humanity, we are hoping that the candidates will answer such questions as these, and demonstrate that in a democracy, men and women can still bring big dreams to life: a fairer, and more equitable society, more innovative, more sustainable, with freedom, opportunities, and justice for all.