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Blowing Up the World When So Little Is at Stake

In last week’s column, I discussed Christophers Coyne’s excellent book In Search of Monsters to Destroy, a cogent account of America’s endeavor to build a “liberal” informal empire. Coyne shows the inherent contradiction of using brutal means to achieve humane values. This week, I’d like to discuss an even more deplorable part of American foreign policy, one which threatens the world with destruction. During the Cold War, the United States risked nuclear war with the Soviet Union; and though the Cold War ended long ago, American support for Ukraine in its war with Russia again risks atomic war. The dangers inherent in American policy have been discussed by Michael Anton, whom readers will recall from previous columns, in his thoughtful article “Nuclear Autumn,” which appeared in the fall 2022 Claremont Review of Books, and I’m going to focus my comments on his remarks.

Anton’s argument is in essence this: The United States came close several times during the Cold War to nuclear war with the Soviet Union, and this would have had appalling consequences. Nevertheless, the danger of losing the world struggle to communism made this risky policy at least arguably rational, at least until 1983, after which the Cold War lessened in intensity. In present circumstances, though, matters are entirely different. Russia, unlike Soviet communism, poses no threat to the United States, yet America’s nuclear policy is more reckless than ever before. Given the consequences of nuclear war, we ought to adopt a less interventionist Ukrainian policy.

As you would anticipate, I agree with the latter part of Anton’s analysis, but the former seems questionable. Anton says,

Conservative conventional wisdom soon hardened around this interpretation, where it has remained ever since: Reagan’s initial toughness was a necessary corrective to Carter’s fecklessness and Nixon’s détente, put the Soviets on their back foot, and forced them back to the table, resetting the stage for a Western victory. Nineteen eighty-three came to be seen as a kind of mirror-image of 1938, teaching the same lesson: appeasement begets war, toughness brings peace—or better yet, victory.

There is no doubt something to this, but even on its own terms, this rendering skips over important elements. The first is that the stakes matter. And the stakes in the Cold War were the very highest: the survival of the free world and maybe even the existence of the whole world. By 1980, it was plausible to fear that freedom and even humanity were losing. It was therefore not unreasonable to believe that calculated risks were warranted.

But you never know where toughness might lead, what it might provoke. When the consequences of toughness could be total destruction, it is rational—moral, even—to be tough only when the stakes are equally enormous. Toughness not in the service of a core interest—or the core of all core interests—is not merely foolish but reckless.

The apostles of nuclear brinkmanship said that the survival of the free world was at stake during the Cold War, but though they were no doubt right that the horrors of living under the gulag were worth fighting to prevent, it is not evident that the nations of the “West,” to use the Cold War argot, faced this threat. The Soviet Union had a relatively poor economy and had enough trouble keeping the Warsaw Pact nations in line without pursuing Western expansion in serious fashion. The Cold Warriors would have done better to heed the lessons of Ludwig von Mises’s calculation argument: so long as the Soviets continued their efforts at central planning, their economy was bound to collapse.

If Anton can be faulted for undue credence to the case for the Cold War, his treatment of the Ukraine war is exemplary. He notes that although the threat to America is far less than was true during the Cold War, US policy is more reckless than in those perilous times, hardly a recipe for rational policy. He says:

The ways in which the stakes are lower are obvious. There is no Cold War—or shouldn’t be, however much Western Russophobes would like one. Russia today, whatever you think of it, is not Communist, is not dominating half of Europe, has no prospect of doing so, and is not exporting revolution around the world. Russians may see themselves as locked in mortal ideological combat with the West, but then we’ve given them ample reason to think so, haven’t we? . . .

The way in which the stakes are higher should be equally obvious. Unlike 1983, 2022 is defined by a hot war, in which Russia is a belligerent. This time the Kremlin isn’t watching a bunch of troop movements wondering whether they’re an exercise or the prelude to war. They know we’re arming Ukraine, providing targeting information that’s killing Russian generals, and using our power over the global financial system to try to strangle their economy—a far cry from merely banning Aeroflot for a few years. Moscow held back in 1983 in part because, at the decisive moment, we held back. That’s not what we’re doing now . . .

The worst element of the present crisis, at least from our side, . . . [is] the casual insouciance with which elites now speak of nuclear exchanges as an acceptable price to pay for stopping Russia and, really, not all that bad. Exhibit A is Anne Applebaum’s recent Atlantic column entitled Fear of Nuclear War Has Warped the West’s Ukraine Strategy.” The West is not doing enough to escalate the conflict, she argues, because [w]e feel relieved, somehow, that people will die because they have frozen in unheated apartments or drowned in an artificial flood, and not from nuclear fallout.” And, hey, what’s the difference? . . . When MSNBC and CNN talking heads start making Curtis LeMay sound circumspect, the world has turned upside down.

(For younger readers, I should note that Curtis LeMay was the air force general in charge of the Strategic Air Command during the Cold War, and notorious for proposing to bomb all and sundry back to the Stone Age.)

By no means should Anton be taken as a supporter of the policies of Vladimir Putin, and those who in response urge the defects of the Russian dictator have not grasped the key point of Anton’s argument. We no longer face the bleak prospect of being “Red or Dead,” if indeed we ever did, and nothing less than this could justify pushing Russia to the nuclear brink.

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