SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 214 Dec/Jan 2017/18

The nuclear threat

US president Trump’s standoff with North Korea and the numerous military conflicts around the world have renewed fear of the use of nuclear weapons. Although war between the major powers is not posed at the present time, today’s multipolar world is increasingly volatile. HANNAH SELL writes.

For many of my generation, who became politically conscious in the 1980s, fear of a nuclear war was central to our questioning of the existing order. Even as young children this threat loomed, evoked by books like Raymond Briggs’ graphic novel, When the Wind Blows. It describes a working-class couple’s valiant and pitiful attempts to follow official government advice on how to survive the aftermath of a nuclear strike.

While fear of a nuclear conflict, and campaigning for nuclear disarmament, was a bigger issue in the second half of the 20th century than it has been in recent years, there are now once again millions of young people who are being radicalised by the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe. Their fears are not irrational while nuclear weaponry continues to exist. In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and therefore the end of the cold war, capitalist propaganda promised a peace dividend as military spending was cut. The dream of worldwide nuclear disarmament was put forward as a realistic possibility.

Today, however, while there has been a huge decrease in the number of nuclear warheads (which peaked at 68,000 in 1985), there are still 14,900 known nuclear weapons in the world, many of them ageing. Over 90% are owned by the US and Russia. Far from being gradually decommissioned, the US and Russia have plans to expand and update their nuclear arsenals. The US plans were developed under Barack Obama and have now been stepped up by Donald Trump, with a massive estimated cost of $1.2 trillion. Russia now has the ability to keep ballistic-ready missile submarines on permanent patrol for the first time since the end of the cold war.

The other countries known to have nuclear weapons are (in decreasing order of arsenal size) France, China, Britain, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea. Although the absolute number of warheads has gone down there is no sense in which it can be argued that non-proliferation is taking place. On the contrary, China now has second-strike capability. Frighteningly, the Pakistan regime has the world’s fastest growing nuclear weapons programme. As the Economist magazine put it in a 2015 briefing: "Weak institutions also increase the danger of unauthorised use of weapons, or of some ending up with non-state groups. This danger is especially acute in Pakistan".

Britain’s nuclear weapons programme is and always has been an expensive appendage to the US arsenal, only able to be launched from US missiles. Successive governments, including those of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, have forced through the renewal of the Trident system at gigantic expense (the latest estimate is £205 billion), mainly for reasons of prestige: to justify Britain’s continued membership of the UN security council, despite now being a third-rate power.

All the nuclear powers’ public justification for continuing to possess these weapons of mass destruction is that they are necessary for ‘self-defence’. In Britain, the right-wing press and the right wing of his own party have ridiculed Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for saying he would never use nuclear weapons if he were prime minister. During one of the general election debates a young audience member summed up the mood of her generation on the issue: "I just can’t understand why he is being attacked for refusing to kill millions of people". But despite Corbyn’s personal opposition to Trident renewal, in a concession to the right wing, Labour continues to support it.

The argument that the existence of nuclear weaponry has made the world safer has never held up to scrutiny. Today, however, it is less defensible than ever. Modern capitalism is more violent and unstable than it was in the 20th century. While it remains the case that the threat of nuclear war is one factor in preventing wars between the imperialist powers, which is not posed in this period, the existence of nuclear weapons do not prevent wars. What is more, the danger is increasing of an out-of-control leader carrying out a strike, or an unstable regime allowing non-state forces to gain nuclear weaponry, or some kind of nuclear accident.

Cuban missile crisis

The era of the cold war – from the end of the second world war to the collapse of Stalinism – was in fact a relatively stable period for world capitalism. This does not mean that no one was killed in wars, millions were: three million each in the wars in Korea and Vietnam alone. Nonetheless, the fear of the Soviet Union, which came out of the second world war enormously strengthened, acted as a kind of glue, pushing the major capitalist powers to cooperate together under the leadership of US imperialism.

Two rival blocs competed for economic, strategic and political influence: the west, dominated by US imperialism, and the eastern bloc, dominated by the Soviet Union, a bureaucratic dictatorship ruling over a centrally planned economy. There was a race to stockpile ever more sophisticated and destructive nuclear weaponry – led by the US, followed by the Soviet bureaucracy. Mutually assured destruction, the capacity for massive retaliation to any first strike, ruled out nuclear war as a rational choice. The certainty of retaliation made a decision to launch a nuclear strike the equivalent of suicide for the regime concerned. The Economist summed it up as follows: "In the cold war the two sides were broadly committed to international stability, with nuclear weapons seen as a way to preserve, rather than challenge, the status quo".

This does not mean that there were no near misses, particularly in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. At the time, fearing another attempted invasion of Cuba by US imperialism, Fidel Castro is reported to have written to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to advocate a nuclear strike on the US, "to eliminate such danger forever through an act of clear legitimate defence, however harsh and terrible the solution would be". Khrushchev is said to have responded: "This is insane; Fidel wants to drag us into the grave with him". In the event, the Soviet Union agreed to withdraw its missiles from Cuba in return for a US pledge not to invade Cuba again, and a secret agreement that the US would withdraw missiles from Turkey.

At least on one occasion, the avoidance of catastrophe hung only on the good sense of individual military personnel. When tensions were at their highest during the Cuban missile crisis, US destroyers were dropping depth charges on a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine off the coast of Cuba. The depth charges were actually non-lethal but the submarine’s crew had no way of knowing that. The launch of a nuclear missile in response, however, required the agreement of all three senior officers on board. One of them, Vasili Arkhipov, refused to give it. Whether or not the launch of a missile would have led to retaliation and global destruction, or ‘only’ a local catastrophe, can never be known, but it was decided amidst the heat and terror of a submarine under attack.

In the years after the Cuban missile crisis more protocols and procedures were established, designed to prevent nuclear accidents, including the ‘red telephone’ link between Moscow and Washington. Nonetheless, considerable individual power continued to rest with US presidents, partly because in a time of crisis it was thought that they were likely to behave with more regard to the overall interests of capitalism than the military chiefs. This was certainly the case during the Cuban crisis.

North Korea

John F Kennedy was not the well-meaning liberal he has sometimes been painted as. He was an intelligent representative of US imperialism. He acted in the best interests of the US ruling class against the advice of ‘hot-headed’ generals. He refused to implement the US joint chief-of-staff’s recommendation of an immediate air strike and invasion of Cuba, instead implementing a naval blockade. He also refused to retaliate when an American spy plane was shot down over the island. The current standoff with North Korea has been described as ‘the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion’. Now, however, it is the military chiefs who are trying to control and hold back the rash and erratic tweets and statements of Trump, which Republican Senator Bob Corker, head of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, described as potentially putting the US "on the path to world war three".

Of course, the checks and balances of capitalist democracy have never been entirely reliable in providing the capitalist class with elected politicians who can be trusted to consistently act in its interests. And the working class should not be under any illusions that politicians who are reliable from the point of view of the capitalist class are in any sense driven by the interests of humanity as a whole. Far from it! In his memoirs, Bill Clinton, undoubtedly a reliable representative of capitalism, admits that there were serious discussions during his presidency of a ‘tactical’ nuclear strike against North Korea to try and prevent the regime developing nuclear weapons.

The fact that such a strike would have resulted in the deaths of millions of Koreans north and south did not prevent it being considered. This is an indication of how the end of the cold war made the world a more dangerous place, in many ways: US imperialism considered a ‘tactical’ strike a possibility because there was no longer a rival bloc, armed to the hilt and which had to be expected to retaliate.

The fact that today such an option is considered crazy, rather than a possibility to be considered, is only because it seems that the North Korean regime has developed weapons capable of retaliating. This regime is a particularly abhorrent and dysfunctional regime with Stalinist roots. Its development, however, has been shaped by the military threat it has faced from the US for over half a century. Irrational and unstable as Kim Jong-un may appear, the development of nuclear weapons is, from the point of view of his regime, entirely rational. They only have to look at the fate of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein or Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi at the hands of US imperialism to conclude that their own weapon of mass destruction is necessary for their survival.

Trying to make Trump safe

Trump’s behaviour in relation to North Korea is not part of a worked out response by US imperialism. While he reflects a section who favours cranking up the pressure on North Korea, most recognise that this is too high-risk and that their only real option is to try and contain the situation. Even Steve Bannon, the alt-right former advisor to Trump, admitted there is no military solution to the problem of North Korea. In the nuclear era there has only been one US president who has been even remotely as unstable as Trump. In the dying days of his presidency, Richard Nixon was morose, unstable and frequently drunk. The defence secretary, James Schlesinger, ordered that if Nixon gave military commands they should not be carried out without first checking with him.

No doubt, behind the scenes, similar attempts to limit Trump’s ability to act are taking place. There are also more public moves afoot to curtail him. In November, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations took the extraordinary step of holding a hearing on the president’s authority to launch a nuclear strike, the first time it had done so in more than 40 years. Chris Murphy (Democrat) told the hearing: "We are concerned that the president of the US is so unstable, so volatile, has a decision-making process so quixotic, that he might order a nuclear weapons strike that is wildly out of step with US national security interests". Retired General Robert Kehler, previously head of US strategic command, told the committee that the military could refuse to follow what it considers an illegal order, even a nuclear one.

These are desperate emergency measures. It is not possible for the US ruling class to easily make Trump ‘safe’ from their point of view. His continued capacity to create global havoc alone shows that all too clearly. Following in his wake are numerous representatives of US imperialism – politicians, but also in the diplomatic services, the CIA and the military – desperately trying to undo the damage he has done.

Middle East tensions

In a world of increasingly high tensions, there is no guarantee they will succeed in extinguishing every match Trump lights before it ignites a pool of petrol. Saudi Arabia is a case in point. Incredibly, it was Trump’s first official foreign visit and he appears to have given the regime a series of blank cheques to throw its weight around the Middle East. The semi-feudal, religious dictatorship of Saudi Arabia has been one of the most important allies of US imperialism in the region, and a vital supplier of oil for decades.

Under Obama, however, weakened US imperialism was increasingly forced to balance between the different regional powers, including a certain rapprochement with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main rival, with a deal that it would not try to become a nuclear power. In the US, Republican Party propaganda cynically whipped up opposition to the deal, based on hostility to Iran after US diplomatic staff were held hostage for 444 days in 1979-81, and fears, especially among the US Jewish and fundamentalist Christian populations, for Israel’s future.

In reality, the Iranian deal is clearly in the interests of US imperialism. When Trump threatened to end the deal, Republican senators, many of whom had previously agitated against it, spoke out forcefully to keep it. This made Trump adapt his stance. Nonetheless, Trump’s belligerent attacks on Iran are likely to strengthen the hard-liners in the Iranian regime and could even destroy the nuclear deal at a certain stage.

Meanwhile, Trump’s attitude has encouraged Saudi Arabia to go on the offensive twice: first against Qatar, and then over the Lebanon and Hezbollah. In the former case, Trump belatedly and partially retreated, clearly under pressure from the strategists of US imperialism. In the latter case, it seems to be French imperialism, represented by Emmanuel Macron, which has attempted to extinguish the lighted match.

Trump has also publicly and rashly encouraged the current purges by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman against other sections of the regime. This is a very dangerous game. The power grab by bin Salman is a symptom of the growing crisis of a weakened regime. It is not ruled out that Trump’s legacy in the Middle East could be both a new regional war and the implosion of the Saudi Arabian regime.

Declining US power

Trump’s election as president and the subsequent difficulty controlling him ultimately reflects the weakness of capitalism, particularly since the 2008 economic crisis, but also the decline of US imperialism. It was not only the fear of ‘communism’ that allowed the US to act as the policeman of the capitalist world during the post-war era, but also its overwhelming strength. After the second world war, the US accounted for 50% of the global economic market. Today, while it is still the world’s strongest capitalist power, it has suffered an enormous decline.

The US, by some measures, now makes up 16% of the global economic market while China has soared to 18%. It is true that China’s domestic market remains limited: according to the World Bank, in 2013 GDP per capita in the US was $53,042. In China it was just $6,807. And the US continues to dominate the world financial system. Over 80% of global financial transactions are conducted in dollars, as are 87% of foreign currency market transactions. What is more, China will not continue to grow in an uninterrupted fashion but will face crisis and even revolution. Nonetheless, broadly speaking, the US is on the way down and China is in the ascendancy.

Militarily, the US is also declining, but still from a position of enormous strength. China, now the second military power, has a military budget of around one third of the US. Russia, the third power, has one sixth of its budget. Nonetheless, it is absolutely clear that the US can no longer call the shots, as the inter-imperialist conflict – played out via local and regional players – in the Syrian war has shown. It has lasted over five years and has resulted in the deaths of over a quarter of a million Syrians.

We live in an unstable multipolar world where the major capitalist powers are increasingly in conflict with each other, destabilising world relations, but are also forced to collaborate. The shift in the balance of forces was demonstrated by Trump’s visit to Asia. Clearly, huge efforts behind the scenes had gone into trying to stop him making any major diplomatic gaffes. He managed, it seems, to partially reassure the South Korean government that he would look for peaceful ways to resolve the conflict with North Korea. Of course, that did not stop him tweeting childish insults about ‘the little rocket man’ being ‘short and fat’ as soon as he returned to the US.

However, while his capacity for causing chaos was more or less held in check during his visit, he instead went and fawned to Xi Jinping. The necessity, from the point of view of US imperialism, of maintaining cooperation with China has pushed Trump into taking broadly the same approach as Obama before him. However, pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, one of Trump’s first acts as president, has left a vacuum which China is attempting to fill, further weakening US imperialism’s influence in Asia.

Political crisis USA

Trump is a nightmare for all intelligent representatives of declining US imperialism, desperately manoeuvring to maintain its position as the world’s greatest superpower. No doubt discussions are taking place on how they can get him out of power as soon as possible, including whether it would be possible to impeach him. This is not an easy or quick process, however. Even Nixon was not impeached, resigning to avoid that happening. In addition to the technical problems, there exists a deep-seated crisis in US society, and in both the major capitalist parties, which allowed Trump to be elected in the first place.

Even prior to the 2008 crash, the US working class had suffered decades of wage restraint. That was then exacerbated by the economic crisis. The result was that, by 2011, wages accounted for the smallest share of GDP since 1955 – 54.9%. There has been no recovery since, employment has increased but wages remain at historically low levels.

A profound anger at the capitalist establishment has undermined the social base of both the Republicans and the pro-business leadership of the Democratic Party. Trump was elected despite being one of the most unpopular politicians in US history, because he was standing against Hillary Clinton, someone even more unpopular! The capitalists did everything in their power to make sure Clinton was the Democratic candidate, however, because the alternative was Bernie Sanders, who described himself as a democratic socialist standing for ‘political revolution’. Sanders is now the most popular politician in the US, reflecting the enormous radicalisation that has taken place.

Meanwhile, in the Republican Party the ‘anti-establishment’ candidate won the race and became president. He based himself on whipping up nationalism in order to find ground to stand on from which, ultimately, he defends the capitalist system. He has been unpopular from the start, achieving a majority ‘disapproval rating’ within days of being elected, the earliest for any president in history. Nonetheless, he retains the support of a section of the population – with approval ratings of around 38% – including a section of the working and middle class, particularly from smaller towns. They still believe, despite evidence to the contrary, that Trump is ‘standing up for the little guys’ against the capitalist establishment. The Republican Party is not united therefore in wanting to get rid of Trump as a liability.

On the contrary, the Republicans and the Democrats contain the outline of two different parties within them both. Unlike with Nixon, attempts to force Trump out of office by impeachment or other means could lead to him openly moving to split the Republican Party. If this was done successfully it would be the first major split in the Republicans since the US civil war. Such events would be likely to accelerate the process towards a split in the Democrats, and the development of a new radical, left party around Bernie Sanders.

Trump’s election, but also the failure to act to remove him, is ultimately an indication of the bankruptcy of the US capitalist class, who represent an economic system that is no longer capable of taking society forward. This does not mean, however, that it is ruled out they will be compelled to find a way to remove him, particularly in order to defend their system.

Above all, they could be forced to act out of fear of the radicalising effects he is having on millions of young people, in the US and to some extent globally. Many are drawing the conclusion that, if Trump can become president of the most powerful capitalist country on the planet, capitalism itself needs to be questioned. A majority of millennials in the US now say they would rather live in a socialist society than a capitalist one.

It is this potential force, a mass movement of young people and workers, which will also be the most effective means of preventing any moves to new wars, and can act to hold regimes back from carrying out a nuclear strike. The mighty anti-war movement in 2003, which attempted to stop the invasion of Iraq – the biggest simultaneous global movement in history – would be as nothing to the mass movements that would sweep the world in the face of the threat of a new inter-imperialist war. Any regime insane enough to carry out a nuclear attack would be overthrown by a revolutionary uprising as a consequence.

However, as long as we live in a capitalist world there is no prospect of nuclear disarmament. Effectively, that is the conclusion drawn by the Economist. It pointed out that nuclear weapon technology cannot be un-invented and that, "as long as great power relations remain unstable, regional rivalries linger unresolved, and rogue states continue to see nuclear weapons as a way of intimidating purportedly powerful adversaries, the incentive to hang on to them will outweigh other considerations". All of these trends are only going to grow under 21st century capitalism. The prerequisite for world peace is the creation of a democratic socialist world.

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