This article also appeared with the US-based outlet, ZNet.
In 1983 the United States, in tandem with partners in NATO, initiated Operation “Able Archer 83”. Deploying in Central Europe, the US committed itself to an action that saw tens of thousands of soldiers in the field, an annual “exercise” in military might intended to simulate and test the feasibility of a nuclear assault on the nations of the Eastern Bloc.
Unfortunately this wasn’t just any other military exercise. Whilst it would be naive in the extreme to argue that NATO had no intention of ruffling feathers, the response they provoked was perhaps more than they had anticipated. Reacting with alarm and believing that a western nuclear attack was imminent, Soviet leader Yuri Andropov ordered his own nuclear assets made ready. The end result was the near outbreak of war in Europe and the destruction of the continent and much of its people in a nuclear inferno. I was six months old.
This episode has not been forgotten. There’s anger. The revelation that I was nearly killed before even my first birthday due to the blundering arrogance of a foreign power was a hard fact to swallow. That this incident is often remembered as just a minor hiccup in an otherwise righteous narrative of “democracy vs communism” or, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan that year, a legitimate action against an “evil empire” is beyond insulting. Myself, before even having a chance to know the world, alongside millions of others, almost suffered an agonising death for the pure sake of conducting an intentionally provocative military display against an already fading power. There can be no equivocation here. This is the truth. The fact that US plans for unleashing nuclear weapons in Europe were already decades old by the time of Able Archer 83 points to that truth.
But the Cold War is over. The Soviet Union is gone. The re-drafting of global security agendas and the omnipresence of the US in seemingly all sphere of life, whether economic, political or indeed military, is a reality When it comes to nuclear arms, specifically, the passing of time has not, regrettably, seen them fall out of use. Russia retains considerable stockpiles. China is well equipped. Despite sporadic denials, Israel is a nuclear force. The UK retains its ageing deterrent as a point of twisted national pride. Yet as the single remaining superpower, the US wields large numbers of nuclear-capable armaments as part of a military apparatus that towers over all contenders.
Barack Obama has failed to distinguish himself in this regard, overseeing a policy that has seen such weapons only decrease marginally. In the process, he’s overseen a renewed impetus to enhance and sustain America’s nuclear potential; a frightening legacy for a man who appears set on being remembered as a progressive pioneer.
Again, there can be no equivocation. Despite initially stressing his desire to curtail nuclear proliferation, Obama’s tenure has seen a veritable upsurge of hard cash directed at researching, producing and indeed maintaining the next generation of American nuclear armaments. Rather than cutting back as part of a “progressive” program of gradual reduction and diplomatic engagement, existing stockpiles will be potentially recycled, upgraded and redeployed as part of a revamped arsenal with continued global reach. The stage has thus been set for an actual upsurge in a modern-day nuclear arms race, one that sees the lion’s share of WMDs simply redesigned and modernised as part of a new breed of military hardware.
This is dangerous for a number of reasons. For one, the types of weapons currently being researched arguably increases the likelihood of them being used, with smaller, lower yield and (presumably) more accurate armaments being more viable as a first strike option that the cumbersome rockets of Able Archer’s day. Additionally, US foreign policy and the stationing of its nuclear arsenal remains frighteningly aggressive in character, with American nuclear missiles being found in multiple locales, from North America to Germany to Turkey and, perhaps most alarmingly, the high seas.
It’s here that the US navy routinely patrols both the Pacific and Atlantic with nuclear capable weaponry. Obama has authorised such a fleet to be upgraded, with the already formidable Ohio-class submarine set to be gradually replaced in the next decade by the nation-killing Columbia-class nuclear ballistic missile submersible. For the bargain price of ninety seven billion dollars, the Columbia subs will ensure US nuclear dominance in the world’s oceans, giving the top brass the continuing capacity to obliterate foreign cities without warning. A strange gift to bequeath the world for a President who entered office as an opponent of WMDs.
An easy excuse to make is that Obama’s hands have necessarily been tied by both opposition at home and intransigence abroad. When it comes to the behaviour of the GOP there is certainly some logic to this. Overseas, however, such arguments fail to hold up, with recent years seeing the US government practising a blatant maliciousness that makes a mockery of the sanitised image it tries to project elsewhere. Whether we are dealing with Hillary Clinton’s monstrous “we came, we saw, he died” quip following the death of Muammar Gaddafi, the thuggish display of force in the Straights of Hormuz in 2012, let alone the support granted to a government openly deploying fascist militias against civilians in eastern Ukraine, the Obama administration has distinguished itself with the tried and tested methods of force and coercion in foreign affairs.
The above incidents are doubly remarkable considering the emphasis laid on foreign policy during his bid for the Presidency. Democrats openly touted Obama as the anti-war candidate; a man to lead the US away from the belligerent follies of the Bush epoch and into a new era of, if not universal benevolence, at least a new kind of politics. A different kind of world leader was to usher in a different kind of world.
We know this has not taken place. For one, nuclear disarmament is not the only issue Obama has failed to act upon, with Guantanamo Bay being another hot topic that, after making such a fanfare over in 2008, he decided to ultimate endorse. Yet this didn’t seem to provoke condemnation from those who original flocked to support him on the promise of change. Obama, like his forebear Bill Clinton, seems to have successfully hidden the substance of his politics within a media friendly persona that’s been notoriously difficult to break through, regardless of the what he actually does in the concrete.
A case in point is a conversation I had back in 2014. An American associate of mine referred to Clinton as the “first cool President”, apparently due to his penchant for playing saxophone. She made no mention of his bombardment of Iraq, the devastating sanctions imposed upon that nation, or indeed other military strikes on an assortment of countries, from Afghanistan to Sudan.
Likewise, there was no mention of Clinton’s role in the economic catastrophe that awaited Russia in the aftermath of the USSR’s fall, something that culminated in the drama of ’93 when President Yeltsin, with Clinton’s support, used tanks against his own legislature. The bombardment of the Supreme Soviet heralded a new dawn for Russia, one marked by IMF interference, economic collapse and the victimisation of many former Soviet citizens by global human trafficking rings. Clinton was, and still is, safely removed from such a context, the “cool”ness of his personality (and musical skills) maintaining a healthy distance from the impact of the policies he actually implemented.
Something similar has taken place with Obama. British writer Owen Jones once described the President as possessing a “coolness that eludes practically ever other politician”, in the process seeming to downplay the fact that habitual aggression overseas, mass deportations and nuclear escalation is more weighty a factor in a man’s character than his smile or style of oratory. Coolness trumps politics, it would seem.
Which raises another point. Donald Trump is self-evidently a very different political animal than Obama. He’s not “cool”, in any palpable sense, whether you’re viewing things via the myopic perspective of an Owen Jones or the cold gaze of Theresa May. From his disastrous hair, ill-fitting suits and alarming skin tone, Trump comes across as a character more likely to appear in Better Call Saul than the high stakes game of power politics. Trump is different from Obama (and indeed both Clintons) in that his candour is more akin to simple bluster than calculated professionalism. Prone to outbursts and faux pars that stand in glaring contrast with the collected demeanour of his predecessor, Trump as a man often seems out of his depth and unpredictable, arguably genuine in some areas whilst lost at sea in most others.
He all the same stands to inherit the military machine left to him by his political forebears, nukes and all. This is alarming. Trump has already shown himself to be cumbersome, at best, when it comes to foreign policy. Whilst he’s made some tentative gestures during his electoral campaign to distance himself from the hawkishness of his opponent, his recent blunder over Taiwan only exposes his inexperience. Given the irate response from Beijing, coupled with mounting tensions in the Pacific and the veritable proliferation of US forces across the region, this is not a worry that can be easily dismissed.
Obama’s policies have ensured that a potentially modernised, upgraded and eminently usable nuclear arsenal is now effectively in the hands of man demonstrably lacking in judgement. Where as Trump may arguably be constrained on what he does (the President is, after all, not an absolute monarch) this is all the same a cause for serious concern. There can, once again, be no equivocation; US nuclear militarism, whether under the control of a “progressive” or indeed a Republican, is a direct and present threat to the future of this planet. It was true in the 1980s. It’s true now.
Daniel Read is a UK-based journalist specialising in human rights and international affairs. He originally studied journalism at Kingston University, London, prior to obtaining post-graduate degrees in both human rights and global politics. He blogs at uncommonsense.me and tweets at @DanielTRead.