Observations of an ex pat: Let’s talk

It’s time to talk. And the Liberal Democrats should publicly say so.

Nuclear weapons, cyber weapons, drones, robots and rogue nuclear states have combined to move the Doomsday clock to two minutes before midnight.

The last time it was this close to Armageddon was January 1953. Stalin was still in the Kremlin. The Korean War was raging and General MacArthur was pressing for a nuclear attack on China. The Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb in 1949. The Americans exploded their first hydrogen bomb in 1952. Anti-communist witch hunter Senator Joe McCarthy was at the height of his powers, Post war Western Europe was struggling to rise to its knees and the Soviet thumb was busily screwing down Eastern Europe.

The international situation was bad. In 2018—say the committee that moves the hands of the Doomsday clock—it is as bad as the worst it has ever been.

And yet, despite the fear that is creeping into global diplomatic relations, very little is being done to encourage negotiations designed to push the minute hand away from midnight. We have become so obsessed with issues such as immigration, sovereignty and economic growth that we have lost sight of the dangers that threaten to obliterate any political and economic gains.

The dangers are as great now as in 1953 because the weaponry is more frightening and the threats are politically more complex and multipolar. In 1953 it was Moscow v. Washington. In 2018 it is Washington v. Beijing, Moscow v. Washington,  Washington v. Tehran, China v. India, Israel v. Iran and the Arab world, North Korea v. Washington, Pakistan v. India, Russia v the EU. Kegs of nuclear gunpowder are scattered across the globe just waiting for the spark to blow us all to kingdom come.

There are now three main protagonists instead of two. In 1953 Mao’s China was closed in on itself. Now it is demanding its rightful place in the world, especially in the Western Pacific. In doing so it is coming up against American power that has filled the vacuum since 1945. Russia, on the other hand, is trying to recover the super power status it lost at the end of the Cold War.

At the moment, the United States has an overwhelming military and technological advantage. But both China and Russia are determined to pursue what they regard as their legitimate interests and are unwilling to accept  American military dominance. The US for its part—especially under Donald Trump—is unwilling to make any concessions.

So China and Russia are spending billions to modernise and expand nuclear and conventional arsenals to catch up with the United States. Trump is doing the same in order to stay ahead. And the smaller countries will be forced to modernise if only to remain relevant.

The Chinese and the Russians are not waiting to catch up with America before testing its power. They have developed what analysts call “hybrid warfare”, designed to keep the US preoccupied and off guard. These include computer hacking, cyber warfare, political and economic intelligence, disinformation, economic warfare, criminal activities and political manipulation. They combine these with what is called “grey area warfare” such as Russian activities in Ukraine and Syria and the Chinese in the South China Sea.  Grey area warfare involves probing attacks; usually in such a way that a plausible deniability is available in order plant the seeds of doubt among Western public opinion.

America’s primary response has been to invest more in technology. One of the most frightening results is a super-sonic, pinpoint accurate conventional weapon designed to knock out nuclear weapons before they can be launched. This missile is believed to be near deployment. The Russians and Chinese are frightened of it because it will give the US a first-strike nuclear capability. So, they are developing their own such weapons.

Then there are the drones and the killer robots and artificial intelligence. All these are either already deployed or in the process of development.

A new arms race is on. Because of shifting geopolitics and advancing technology, it is much more frightening than in the Cold War years. The need for diplomatic negotiations is correspondingly greater.

Liberal Democrats should call on the government to initiate fresh multilateral disarmament talks in the spirit of the SALT and START negotiations of the Cold War years. Britain is well-placed to take on this role. Brexit is vitally important, but so is the threat of conflict. By pushing the government towards action on this front, Lib Dems are demonstrating a foreign policy that looks beyond Europe at a time when the conservative has difficulty focusing on the simplest of problems.


* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War” and “America Made in Britain". To subscribe to his email alerts on world affairs click here.

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  • Steve Trevethan 2nd Feb '18 - 7:49pm

    Thank you for a piece on a pressing matter!
    Might some math be relevant?

    Military Expenditures [2016/7]
    USA 611.2 $Bn
    China 215.7 $Bn
    Russia 69.2 $Bn
    Saudi Arabia 63.7 $Bn
    India 55.9 $Bn
    France 55.7 $Bn
    UK 48.3 $Bn
    [Stockholm International Peace Research Institute]

  • Peter Hirst 3rd Feb '18 - 3:01pm

    It is not easy to judge how close we are to Armageddon. These things are best judged retrospectively! It is a question of how far the military powers will go to achieve their aims. Reports of meddling in other countries’ elections is not inspiring. I can’t see a first nuclear strike being undertaken by the primary powers; they have so much to lose. There is an urgent case for enabling weaker powers so they too have plenty to lose.

  • Nick Collins 3rd Feb '18 - 3:23pm

    @ Peter Hirst. How does one judge Armageddon respectively? Does that assume a belief in life after death?

  • Arnold Kiel 4th Feb '18 - 9:11am

    Apart from the weaponry amassed and the budgets spent, one key military strength is the willingness and ability to ruthlessly sacrifice innocent lives with minimum challenge from a free press, a civil society, or a democratic parliamentary process.

    Here, Putin is a distant first, followed by Erdogan, Xi, Trump, and then, again with a large distance the UK and France followed by Germany.

    Putin will only disarm if the West irrevocably accepts his hegenomy over free countries like Poland. The same is true for China re the South China sea.

    Instead, Europe must raise its budgets and, more importantly, its resolve. And it must unite. No European country can be an effective autonomous military actor, and we must become able to defend ourselves without the US.

  • Steve Trevethan 4th Feb '18 - 12:32pm

    The SIPRI stats indicate that there is a lot of money to be made through armed conflict goods and services. People making a lot of money tend to have a lot of power, political and commercial. Perhaps we might be wise to look beyond national stats on armament goods and services.

    The military of the USA is deployed in more than 150 counties around the world, with over 300,000 of its active service personnel serving outside the US and its territories.
    Russian overseas bases and personnel?
    Chinese ditto?

  • Steve Trevethan 4th Feb '18 - 5:40pm

    Indeed we do need to create a socio-political context in which there is a demand for fewer weapons.
    Perhaps we could start with analyses of the financial and social connections within the political, media and arms industry complex.
    In 2016, US arms industry lobbyists put into Capitol Hill $128, 845,198.
    Are all markets impartial and free from the power and influence of the very wealthy?

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