The countdown to World War Trump began on August 2 after the Trump administration dumped the 1987 INF Treaty that had helped to put an end the Cold War by eliminating all US and Soviet land-based intermediate range missiles.
Inter-state geopolitical and economic tensions have been mounting in intensity over key focal points of dispute. These conflicts include that of the US and NATO vs. Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) over eastern Ukraine and Crimea; the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel vs. Iran in the Arab-Persian Gulf and throughout the ‘wider Middle East’—among other disputes in the Indo-Pacific and Eurasian regions.
In addition to interfacing with the ongoing “global war on terrorism” with the Islamic State, Al Qaeda derivatives and others, such as the Houthis in Yemen, seen as backed by Iran, these major disputes and conflicts have begun to provoke new “Butter Battle” arms rivalries―that could soon draw regional and major powers into direct conflict. While these disputes existed prior to President Trump’s arrival to power, the Trump administration’s “Peace through Strength” doctrine has exacerbated the real possibility of global war.
This essay will show how US strategic policies toward Iran have helped to generate an “insecurity-security dialectic1 and “Butter Battle” arms rivalries throughout the wider Middle East and with Russia as well. Part II, to be published in October, will discuss the “insecurity-security dialectic” in the Indo-Pacific in relationship to Iran, North Korea, Russia and China, as well as India, and show how that “dialectic” relates to the new US trade war with China and the potential for military conflict in that region.
As I had discussed in a previous WSI post, Dr. Seuss, the children’s author, had written The Butter Battle Book as a satirical protest against the US-Soviet arms race and against the real possibility of nuclear war in 1984. The 1987 INF Treaty had verified the elimination of 2,692 US and Soviet missiles based in Europe, thereby putting an end to the Cold War and to what Dr. Seuss had satirized as the “Butter Battle” arms rivalry. Yet by dropping out of the 1987 INF Treaty on August 2nd 2019, President Trump has initiated Round II of the “Butter Battle”―an action that intensifies the post-Cold War “insecurity-security dialectic” and that will now prove even more difficult to wind down.
The “insecurity-security dialectic” is an inter-active process by which rival state leaderships act upon actual and potential domestic and international “threats” and respond in ways that they believe, rightfully or wrongfully, best protect and sustain “national security”. Yet in the steps that are taken to protect “national security” as defined by elites in power, the nature of the actions threatened, taken, or even not taken, may actually generate greater “insecurity” for third parties, as well as for differing actors within states—thus widening the conflict and making the overall situation even more “insecure.”
The “insecurity-security dialectic” involves essentially five dimensions:
1) In response to perceived security “threats,” states generally develop new kinds of weapons systems and tools of strategic leveraging. These tools include differing forms of sanctions that are intended to pressure rival or even allied states—in the effort to somehow change the behavior of those states in the favor of one’s own state. This dialectical process can generate new political-military tensions that can lead other states to respond in kind. If, however, states cannot respond with equivalent measures, they can develop asymmetrical military responses that include acts of cyber-sabotage and terrorism, among other options. Military responses and sanctions aimed at one state can then result in reciprocal military build-ups or asymmetrical responses by third parties, including allies, in a chain reaction.
2) The demand for new weapons systems is generally symptomatic of fears of both domestic and international insecurity among rival states that possess conflicting geopolitical and economic security concerns and interests. Yet the precise nature of military and security responses to new arms programs and to sanctions of rival states (and even allies) is often a result of internal power struggles in which competing elites differ over the best direction for both domestic policy (in protecting against and countering perceived domestic “threats”) and global strategy (in protecting against and countering perceived external “threats”).
3) Rising defense and security expenditure augments the role of the “military-industrial-congressional" complex and diverts resources away from social welfare and other needs, such as environmental protection, through the trade-off of “guns vs. butter vs. environment.” This process can cause social dislocation, highly uneven development, and social protest. And the more socially and economically instable a country becomes, the more its leadership can become politically instable―often making it even more difficult to achieve lasting diplomatic agreements and settlements to significant disputes and conflicts2.
4) Not only do arms rivalries often result in higher than expected financial costs, but they can also cause unexpected accidents and “collateral damage” (or “externalities”) that can result in other forms of social and political costs and burdens. In addition, state leaderships may overreact to possible social protests and acts of violence, resulting in “hyper-securitization” that can lead to possible political repression that could then provoke additional acts of terrorism by domestic or internationally sponsored groups.
5) And if heightened tensions and conflicting state strategies lead intra-state conflicts and/or inter-state war to erupt, the question as to whether such a war remains “limited” to one country, or whether that war widens and spreads to third countries, largely depends upon how many countries are impacted by the nature of established alliance relationships and by the complex dynamics of the “insecurity-security dialectic” that can draw states into a dispute or conflict in a chain reaction.
From this perspective, what I call the “insecurity-security dialectic” is more complex than the generally recognized “security dilemma”—in that the latter concept does not examine how dialectical and interactive power struggles between rival elites over both domestic and foreign policy can impact arms rivalries with rival states and can directly or indirectly result in domestic opposition and acts of terrorism or other tools of asymmetrical warfare.
One of the clearest contemporary examples of the “insecurity-security dialectic” is US policy toward Iran as it has impacted Europe, Russia, the ‘wider Middle East’— in addition to impacting domestic American and Iranian politics.
It is a crisis that has been intensifying after President Trump refused to certify Tehran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear accord in May 2018. The JCPOA had been signed with Iran by the Obama administration in 2015 and by the UN Security Council and the European Union. The JCPOA had been intended to restrict Iran’s nuclear enrichment program and put in place a stronger system of international monitoring in exchange for the gradual lifting of US, EU and UN sanctions on Iran.
The Trump administration decision to dump the JCPOA accord—which President Trump claimed had failed to address Iran’s missile program and Iran’s role in regional wars―has consequently upset US Allies and helped to undermine UN and Contact Group legitimacy. Yet the JCPOA was not intended to either address Iran’s missile program or its participation in regional wars—as these issues need to be addressed in other multilateral negotiations.
The dilemma is that Trump’s rejection of JCPOA has raised additional tensions in the region given threats of terrorism against the US military presence and other targets, including the sabotage of international oil tankers by unknown assailments, and the fact that the Islamic State, among other groups, is not entirely defeated as Trump has claimed.
Moreover, the very unilateral manner by which President Trump made the decisions to drop out of both the JCPOA and INF treaties puts the US at fault. With respect to the JCPOA, the International Atomic Energy Agency has not yet found evidence that Iran was cheating on the JCPOA Safeguards agreement, even though it has raised questions about undeclared nuclear material3.
And in an action that indicates the Trump administration had been planning to leave the 1987 INF Treaty―whether or not Moscow had been cheating on the Treaty as Washington has claimed—the US tested a modified ground-launched version of an intermediate range Navy Tomahawk cruise missile off the coast of California just a few weeks after dumping the INF treaty on August 2nd 2019. The US had accused Moscow of deploying the nuclear-capable intermediate range Novator 9M729 missile that Washington claimed was capable of striking within the 500-5,500 kilometer range prohibited by the 1987 INF Treaty. Yet Washington went ahead and tested its own intermediate range missile which can enhance US warfighting capabilities—an action denounced by both Moscow and Beijing.
The fact that the Trump administration ended the waiver on secondary sanctions on US rivals and allies, including China, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, Italy, and Greece, that import Iranian oil, thereby making these countries vulnerable to US economic sanctions if they continue to purchase Iranian energy and products after May 2019, has provoked disaccord. The dilemma is that many of these countries continue to demand Iranian oil and gas due to the difficulties in finding cheap alternatives—and they thus risk confrontation with the US if they do purchase Iranian energy products. In fact, China has recently reached a major $400 billion energy deal with Iran that flies in the face of Trump sanctions. (I will discuss this issue in more depth in Part II in October.)
The widening nature of the “insecurity-security dialectic” is further shown by the fact that Iran’s missile program, and not that of Moscow, had been singled out by Washington in order to justify US and NATO Missile Defense deployments in eastern Europe. In 2002, the George W. Bush administration, blaming Iran in part, unilaterally dropped out of the 1972 ABM treaty that had limited US-Soviet/Russian anti-missile deployments—but without fully engaging in discussions with Moscow. For its part, Iran has thus far developed ballistic missiles with a 2,000 km range that can strike Israel, southern Europe, and US military bases in the region. But its missiles cannot yet reach the US over the eastern Europe/North Pole trajectory as has been claimed by US officials to justify Missile Defense (MD) deployments in eastern Europe.
The Obama administration did attempt to develop a joint US-Russian Missile Defense system in working with Moscow to implement a dual-key arrangement, but it failed to reach a political agreement. The failure of Washington and Moscow to implement a joint approach to missile defenses then led each side to engage in a conventional and nuclear force modernization, particularly following the 2008 Georgia-Russia war―a war which was largely provoked by Georgia, not by Moscow4.
Moscow has argued that US/NATO Missile Defense systems and integrated defense radar systems deployed in eastern Europe could eventually be used by the US to launch a first strike. In Moscow’s view, Washington could place offensive missiles in the Mk-41 missile-interceptor launchers that are now deployed in Romania as part of the Aegis Ashore system and that are also to be deployed in Poland.
Concurrently, in response to the deployment of Russian tactical nuclear weapons and other systems, such as the Russian SU-35 Flanker jet, and the S-400 Triumf and eventually S-500 surface-to-air missiles, the US has been extending the range of its B-61-12 tactical thermonuclear bomb that is being modernized for deployment on the costly F-35 fifth generation fighter jet. The Pentagon is also developing the W76-2 low-yield nuclear warhead for the Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile—a weapon that should be banned. The US, Russia, and China have all been developing hypersonic weapons as well.
As an additional rationale to dump the 1987 INF Treaty, the Trump administration argued that the latter treaty does not incorporate the land-based intermediate range missile systems of other countries. In addition to Russia’s alleged development of dual-capable intermediate range missiles, Washington perceives the intermediate range missile capabilities of Iran, North Korea, and China to be the primary threats to US interests. The UK and France, as well as India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, additionally possess significant intermediate range missile capabilities. The problem, however, is to reduce the deployments of these systems—and not to add to them!
From a domestic perspective, the insecurity-security dialectic has been heightened as President Trump, much like Ronald Reagan, has hoped to strengthen his appeal among the American voters by confronting Iran. Trump wants to be seen as a tough leader who strongly supports Israel and who opposes Iran and other militant Islamist states and social movements.
Yet Trump’s policies have tended to strengthen the hands of Iranian hardliners who want to confront the US—so as to build their own domestic power base inside Iran so that there is a general loss in confidence and trust of the US among the general Iranian population. Trump’s excessively pro-Israel and pro-Saudi policies likewise fuels the propaganda of militant pan-Islamist groups who oppose Israel as well as Saudi control over Mecca.
By placing sanctions on Iranian leaders, including Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, who negotiated the JCPOA, the Trump administration appears to be indicating that it is not interested in pursuing sincere diplomacy with even Iranian “moderates.” In effect, Trump and Iranian hardliners have engaged in a form of mutual manipulation that serves each other’s interests as tensions between the two countries amplify—a dialectical interaction that generates even greater insecurity and tensions. In an effort to counter Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy, Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has defined Iran’s policy as “no war, no negotiation."
Moreover, by encouraging Saudi Arabia, which possesses its own Chinese-made intermediate range missiles, to develop its own nuclear enrichment capacity, the Trump administration could eventually provoke Iran and other states into developing nuclear weapons capabilities. Trump policies have already provoked Iran into enriching uranium to a higher degree than Tehran initially promised after the signing of the JCPOA in 2015. Tehran could also seek greater military assistance from North Korea, Russia and China, while Riyadh could, in response, acquire nuclear weapons capabilities from Pakistan. And Turkey has threatened to acquire nuclear weaponry as well.
If this conflict is to be resolved, the major powers will need to work once again, as was the case with the JCPOA, through UN Contact Groups—so as to prevent more states from acquiring WMD and missile capabilities. Yet given President Trump’s decision to pull out of both the JCPOA and the INF treaties, it will prove very difficult to renew a concerted Contact Group relationship—which needs positive Russian and Chinese participation. In the August 2019 G-7 summit, French President Macron did attempt to play a role as a facilitator between Trump and Iran, but it appears highly dubious his efforts will prove successful―particularly after the highly destructive drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities in mid-September 2019―which the US has blamed directly on Iran and not on the Houthis in Yemen.
At present, Moscow has appeared to be reluctant to support Iran too strongly militarily for fear of alienating Saudi Arabia and of further agitating the “wider Middle East.” Moscow, for example, has publicly denied that it would sell Iran the S-400 surface-to-air missile (This is true even though Moscow has sold the S-400 to NATO member Turkey, as well as to China and India). Yet Iran may have nevertheless acquired an anti-missile system that is somewhat equivalent to the S-400. At the same time, Iran has been bragging that its $20,000 home-made Iranian anti-missile was able to strike down a $200 million US drone—thus revealing its asymmetrical military capabilities vs. US military superiority.
Despite Trump’s pro-Russia image, the Trump administration and NATO have not yet been moving in the direction of reconciliation with Moscow. In response to Russia’s military buildup in Crimea and in Kaliningrad since 2014 and the deployment of new Russian weapons systems, NATO has now stated that it will increase its reconnaissance operations and bolster its air and missile defenses. NATO could also decide to re-position US sea-based missiles—so as to counter new Russian land-based missile systems. Yet the deployment of land-based missiles in Europe would risk mass protests, similar to those of the European Nuclear Disarmament (END) movement in 1983, at least in western Europe. NATO members and US allies in Asia have thus far opposed the possible US deployment of intermediate range missiles on their territories.
As an indirect, yet dangerous, consequence of the “insecurity-security dialectic” and new Butter Battle is an explosion that caused a number of deaths and released a significant amount of radiation over the White Sea Nenoksa Missile Test Site in August 2019. It is believed (but not certain) that a new nuclear-powered cruise missile (called Burevestnik in Russia or the SSC-X-9 Skyfall by NATO countries) may have exploded in a test launching. President Putin had previously praised the “invincibility” of this new weapon and its ostensible ability to avoid US Missile Defenses as it was being developed.
Instead of adding more dangerous nuclear weapons and missile systems5, the Trump administration should be trying to reduce, if not eliminate, all Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). And if nuclear weapons cannot be entirely abolished, then states should consider pledges of “no first use” of all WMD as a step-by-step approach in each regional dispute, most importantly, in the wider Middle East, but also in South Asia and the Indo-Pacific.
The dilemma is that the unilateral US withdrawal from the 1987 INF Treaty―without soon forging a new substitute treaty—will permit Russia and other states to continue their own buildup of intermediate range ballistic missiles and other weapons systems. Both Washington and Moscow also need to sustain for at least 5 years the New Start Treaty on strategic nuclear weaponry that expires in 2021―if they are to prevent a full-scale arms race. A revision of New Start should be considered as soon as possible—but even a revision of New Start will not prevent regional conflicts that could draw in the major powers.
What is needed now is significant conventional and nuclear weapons reductions on all sides, while concurrently seeking ways to enhance inter-state security and confidence through geopolitical and economic agreements. As argued in World War Trump, it is crucial that Washington eventually join multilateral Normandy talks with France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia over eastern Ukraine and Crimea―in an effort to keep that conflict from spreading and escalating6.
Yet instead of working to create a political climate in which the US could obtain and sustain the trust of both allied and hostile leaderships, and that would seek multilateral regional geopolitical, military, and economic accords with Iran and Saudi Arabia, among other states, the Trump administration thus far appears ideologically allergic to any multilateral accords and calls for restraint that could help prevent Round II of a costly and dangerous Butter Battle—and that will help deter the real possibility of provoking, whether intentionally, accidentally on purpose, or just accidentally, major power war. Not only could an escalation of US-Saudi-Israeli conflict with Iran destabilize the wider Middle East—but such a conflict could eventually drag in China and Russia as well.
1 See Hall Gardner, Averting Global War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007/ 2010). Hall Gardner, “Alienation and the Causes and Prevention of War’;” in Hall Gardner and Oleg Kobtzeff, editors, The Ashgate Research Companion to War: Origins and Prevention (Ashgate: February 2012). Hall Gardner, American Global Strategy and the “War on Terrorism” (Ashgate, 2005).
2 See my argument in Hall Gardner, World War Trump: The Risk of America’s New Nationalism (Prometheus Books, 2018).
3 “The Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of nuclear material declared by Iran under its Safeguards Agreement. Evaluations regarding the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran continue.”
4 Hall Gardner, NATO Expansion and US Strategy in Asia (Palgrave Macmillan 2013).
5 Mikhail Gorbachev, A New Nuclear Arms Race Has Begun New York Times (October 25, 2018), Henry Kissinger, George P. Shultz, William Perry, Sam Nunn, A World Free of Nuclear Weapons, Wall Street Journal (January 4, 2007).
6 Hall Gardner, World War Trump: The Risk of America’s New Nationalism (Prometheus Books, 2018) and Hall Gardner, IR Theory, Historical Analogy, and Major Power War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).