How concerned should we be about a major war in our future? Trump’s belligerent tweets beat the war drums every week, but discerning rhetoric from reality is challenging in light of the administration’s ever changing cast of characters, who often hold contradicting or incoherent governing philosophies about the role the U.S. should play in the world.  

Take the situation as of April 9th: Donald Trump draws popular support from a largely anti-internationalist base, yet is building a war cabinet that will include Iraq War architect John Bolton as National Security Advisor and Islamophobic war hawk Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State. The president is an “America first” nationalist who promises U.S. retrenchment one day and then gushes over dropping the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan the next. So when endeavoring to discern the administration’s supposed and hidden agenda in, say, Syria, one can be forgiven for not knowing which statement, tweet, or character to give weight to.

But while the Trump administration’s foreign policy priorities may appear bipolar, the U.S. military has a clear vision of the future: we are en-route to “great power competition.” By its calculations, we will become increasingly embroiled in a geopolitical struggle to resist the advances of rising powers in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Seismic strategic shifts are underway in the Pentagon to prepare for the wars of this future. They are conventional wars against “near-peer powers” — against countries with forces and weaponry resembling our own.

The problem with designating “great powers” as your adversaries is that they might just take your word for it and respond accordingly.
– Conn Hallinan

The militarization comes with substantial risk. The reckless or miscalculated statements of statesmen carry us much faster down the slippery slope to conflict when the war-machine is already well lubricated. As AJP Taylor said of 1914, “The great armies, accumulated to provide security and preserve the peace, carried the nations to war by their own weight.” Again, we risk becoming prisoner of our weapons.

What appears particularly worrisome about this three-front strategy is its immense capacity for confrontation, miscalculation, escalation, and finally actual war rather than simply grandiose war planning.
– Michael T. Klare

Four recent developments indicate a momentous revving of the U.S. war machine:

  1. On January 19th, the Pentagon released the unclassified summary of its aggressive 2018 National Defense Strategy. The document explicitly identifies great-power competition as the new primary threat to U.S. national security (formerly terrorism), including a new commitment to countering the actions of China and Russia. U.S. armed forces have already shifted their trainings to simulate large-scale mechanized land wars (rather than counter terrorism / insurgency).
  2. The following month, the Pentagon unveiled an equally aggressive Nuclear Posture. It calls for the development of new nuclear weapons and opens the door to use them without having been attacked. The new arsenal will include weapons with lower ranges of explosive capacity available for preemptive “limited strikes” (dubbed “bloody-nose” nuclear punches). These attacks – just short of knockout-blows – are meant to frighten adversaries like North Korea into compliance. Experts call the plan insane – a move that would risk pulling the U.S. into a disastrous war and endanger hundreds of thousands of lives.
  3. Our tax dollars will fund the military build-up. Congress approved the 2018 America First budget, significantly increasing funding to the Pentagon. While $619 billion were allocated to defense spending in 2017 (already well beyond the $549 billion spending cap), $700 billion was approved for 2018 and $716 billion is proposed for 2019.
  4. Equally concerning is what’s not being funded: diplomacy. Funding to the State Department was cut by 41 percent this year and diplomatic vacancies persist across the board. Dozens of countries still lack permanent ambassadors, and seven of nine high-level State Department positions remain unfilled, including the Undersecretary,  who oversees nonproliferation and disarmament. Meanwhile, skilled career diplomats are leaving in droves while a departmental hiring freeze stymies the inflow of entry-level talent.

The time to sideline diplomacy (the primary means to prevent conflict) could not be worse. United States hegemony is, indeed, on the decline, and the multipolar reality emerging in its place could be far more turbulent absent robust international cooperation. Rising powers like China with newfound might are already vying for influence and, as the playing field levels, the inter-state competition could spill into highly lethal 21st century battlefields. Operating within rules-based systems and international institutions reduces this risk, but such a system will only persist if it is seen as legitimate and inclusive by peer powers, requiring the U.S. to make compromises and concessions. But renegotiating the rules of the game requires mature, sober diplomacy — and the diplomats to do it. We seem to lack both.

The good news is that the voice of civil society carries more weight in determining foreign affairs than ever before. International collaboration is no longer the sole province of (mostly male) statesmen in inaccessible embassies and consulates. A sprawling network of coalitions, partnerships and initiatives undertaken by cities, NGOs, universities, foundations, businesses, and determined individuals are gaining traction. And history has shown that when leaders are at dangerous impasses, a connected civil society can make a difference in lessening tensions and averting war.

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