Michael Klare

'Those who play with fire will get burned': How a dangerous game of chicken risks a globe-shaking war

The leaders of China and the United States certainly don't seek a war with each another. Both the Biden administration and the regime of Chinese President Xi Jinping view economic renewal and growth as their principal objectives. Both are aware that any conflict arising between them, even if restricted to Asia and conducted with non-nuclear weapons — no sure bet — would produce catastrophic regional damage and potentially bring the global economy to its knees. So, neither group has any intention of deliberately starting a war. Each, however, is fully determined to prove its willingness to go to war if provoked and so is willing to play a game of military chicken in the waters (and air space) off China's coast. In the process, each is making the outbreak of war, however unintended, increasingly likely.

History tells us that conflicts don't always begin due to planning and intent. Some, of course, start that way, as was the case, for instance, with Hitler's June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union and Japan's December 1941 attacks on the Dutch East Indies and Pearl Harbor. More commonly, though, countries have historically found themselves embroiled in wars they had hoped to avoid.

This was the case in June 1914, when the major European powers — Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire — all stumbled into World War I. Following an extremist act of terror (the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie by Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo), they mobilized their forces and issued ultimatums in the expectation that their rivals would back off. None did. Instead, a continent-wide conflict erupted with catastrophic consequences.

Sadly, we face the possibility of a very similar situation in the coming years. The three major military powers of the current era — China, the United States, and Russia — are all behaving eerily like their counterparts of that earlier era. All three are deploying forces on the borders of their adversaries, or the key allies of those adversaries, and engaging in muscle-flexing and "show-of-force" operations intended to intimidate their opponent(s), while demonstrating a will to engage in combat if their interests are put at risk. As in the pre-1914 period, such aggressive maneuvers involve a high degree of risk when it comes to causing an accidental or unintended clash that could result in full-scale combat or even, at worst, global warfare.

Provocative military maneuvers now occur nearly every day along Russia's border with the NATO powers in Europe and in the waters off China's eastern coastline. Much can be said about the dangers of escalation from such maneuvers in Europe, but let's instead fix our attention on the situation around China, where the risk of an accidental or unintended clash has been steadily growing. Bear in mind that, in contrast to Europe, where the borders between Russia and the NATO countries are reasonably well marked and all parties are careful to avoid trespassing, the boundaries between Chinese and U.S./allied territories in Asia are often highly contested.

China claims that its eastern boundary lies far out in the Pacific — far enough to encompass the independent island of Taiwan (which it considers a renegade province), the Spratly and Paracel Islands of the South China Sea (all claimed by China, but some also claimed by Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines), and the Diaoyu Islands (claimed by both China and Japan, which calls them the Senkaku Islands). The United States has treaty obligations to Japan and the Philippines, as well as a legislative obligation to aid in Taiwan's defense (thanks to the Taiwan Relations Act passed by Congress in 1979) and consecutive administrations have asserted that China's extended boundary claims are illegitimate. There exists, then, a vast area of contested territory, encompassing the East and South China Seas — places where U.S. and Chinese warships and planes increasingly intermingle in challenging ways, while poised for combat.

Probing Limits (and Defying Them)

The leaders of the U.S. and China are determined that their countries will defend what it defines as its strategic interests in such contested areas. For Beijing, this means asserting its sovereignty over Taiwan, the Diaoyu Islands, and the islands of the South China Sea, as well as demonstrating an ability to take and defend such territories in the face of possible Japanese, Taiwanese, or U.S. counterattacks. For Washington, it means denying the legitimacy of China's claims and ensuring that its leadership can't realize them through military means. Both sides recognize that such contradictory impulses are only likely to be resolved through armed conflict. Short of war, however, each seems intent on seeing how far it can provoke the other, diplomatically and militarily, without triggering a chain reaction ending in disaster.

On the diplomatic front, representatives of the two sides have been engaging in increasingly harsh verbal attacks. These first began to escalate in the final years of the Trump administration when the president abandoned his supposed affection for Xi Jinping and began blocking access to U.S. technology by major Chinese telecommunications firms like Huawei to go with the punishing tariffs he had already imposed on most of that country's exports to the U.S. His major final offensive against China would be led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who denounced that country's leadership in scathing terms, while challenging its strategic interests in contested areas.

In a July 2020 statement on the South China Sea, for instance, Pompeo slammed China for its aggressive behavior there, pointing to Beijing's repeated "bullying" of other claimants to islands in that sea. Pompeo, however, went beyond mere insult. He ratcheted up the threat of conflict significantly, asserting that "America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law" — language clearly meant to justify the future use of force by American ships and planes assisting friendly states being "bullied" by China.

Pompeo also sought to provoke China on the issue of Taiwan. In one of his last acts in office, on January 9th, he officially lifted restrictions in place for more than 40 years on U.S. diplomatic engagement with the government of Taiwan. Back in 1979, when the Carter administration broke relations with Taipei and established ties with the mainland regime, it prohibited government officials from meeting with their counterparts in Taiwan, a practice maintained by every administration since then. This was understood to be part of Washington's commitment to a "One China" policy in which Taiwan was viewed as an inseparable part of China (though the nature of its future governance was to remain up for negotiation). Reauthorizing high-level contacts between Washington and Taipei more than four decades later, Pompeo effectively shattered that commitment. In this way, he put Beijing on notice that Washington was prepared to countenance an official Taiwanese move toward independence — an act that would undoubtedly provoke a Chinese invasion effort (which, in turn, increased the likelihood that Washington and Beijing would find themselves on a war footing).

In the first high-level encounter between U.S. and Chinese officials in the Biden years, a meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, on March 18th and 19th, newly installed Secretary of State Antony Blinken used his opening remarks to lambaste the Chinese, expressing "deep concerns" over China's behavior in its mistreatment of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang Province, in Hong Kong, and in its increasingly aggressive approach to Taiwan. Such actions, he said, "threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability." Blinken has uttered similar complaints in other settings, as have senior Biden appointees to the CIA and Department of Defense. Tellingly, in its first months in office, the Biden administration has given the green light to the same tempo of provocative military maneuvers in contested Asian waters as did the Trump administration in its last months.

The Trump administration also took concrete actions on the military front, especially by increasing naval maneuvers in the South China Sea and in waters around Taiwan. The Chinese replied with their own strong words and expanded military activities. In response, for instance, to a trip to Taipei last September by Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs Keith Krach, the highest-ranking State Department official to visit the island in 40 years, China launched several days of aggressive air and sea maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait. According to Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang, those maneuvers were "a reasonable, necessary action aimed at the current situation in the Taiwan Strait protecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity." Speaking of that island's increasing diplomatic contact with the U.S., he added, "Those who play with fire will get burned."

Today, with Trump and Pompeo out of office, the question arises: How will the Biden team approach such issues? To date, the answer is: much like the Trump administration.

"Gunboat Diplomacy" Today

In the years leading up to World War I, it was common for major powers to deploy their naval forces in waters near their adversaries or near rebellious client states in that age of colonialism to suggest the likelihood of punishing military action if certain demands weren't met. The U.S. used just such "gunboat diplomacy," as it was then called, to control the Caribbean region, forcing Colombia, for example, to surrender the territory Washington sought to build a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Today, gunboat diplomacy is once again alive and well in the Pacific, with both China and the U.S. engaging in such behavior.

China is now using its increasingly powerful navy and coast guard on a regular basis to intimidate other claimants to islands it insists are its own in the East and South China Seas — Japan in the case of the Senkakus; and Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines in the case of the Spratlys and Paracels. In most instances, this means directing its naval and coast guard vessels to drive off the fishing boats of such countries from waters surrounding Chinese-claimed islands. In the case of Taiwan, China has used its ships and planes in a menacing fashion to suggest that any move toward declaring independence from the mainland will be met with a harsh military response.

For Washington in the Biden era, assertive military maneuvers in the East and South China Seas are a way of saying: no matter how far such waters may be from the U.S., Washington and the Pentagon are still not prepared to cede control of them to China. This has been especially evident in the South China Sea, where the U.S. Navy and Air Force regularly conduct provocative exercises and show-of-force operations intended to demonstrate America's continuing ability to dominate the region — as in February, when dual carrier task forces were dispatched to the region. For several days, the USS Nimitz and the USS Theodore Roosevelt, along with their accompanying flotillas of cruisers and destroyers, conducted mock combat operations in the vicinity of islands claimed by China. "Through operations like this, we ensure that we are tactically proficient to meet the challenge of maintaining peace and we are able to continue to show our partners and allies in the region that we are committed to promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific," was the way Rear Admiral Doug Verissimo, commander of the Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group, explained those distinctly belligerent actions.

The Navy has also stepped up its patrols of destroyers in the Taiwan Strait as a way of suggesting that any future Chinese move to invade Taiwan would be met with a powerful military response. Already, since President Biden's inauguration, the Navy has conducted three such patrols: by the USS John S. McCain on February 4th, the USS Curtis Wilbur on February 24th, and the USS John Finn on March 10th. On each occasion, the Navy insisted that such missions were meant to demonstrate how the U.S. military would "continue to fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows."

Typically, when the U.S. Navy conducts provocative maneuvers of this sort, the Chinese military — the People's Liberation Army, or PLA — responds by sending out its own ships and planes to challenge the American vessels. This occurs regularly in the South China Sea, whenever the Navy conducts what it calls "freedom of navigation operations," or FONOPs, in waters near Chinese-claimed (and sometimes Chinese-built) islands, some of which have been converted into small military installations by the PLA. In response, the Chinese often dispatch a ship or ships of its own to escort — to put the matter as politely as possible — the American vessel out of the area. These encounters have sometimes proven exceedingly dangerous, especially when the ships got close enough to pose a risk of collision.

In September 2018, for example, a Chinese destroyer came within 135 feet of the guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur on just such a FONOP mission near Gavin Reef in the Spratly Islands, obliging the Decatur to alter course abruptly. Had it not done so, a collision might have occurred, lives could have been lost, and an incident provoked with unforeseeable consequences. "You are on [a] dangerous course," the Chinese ship reportedly radioed to the American vessel shortly before the encounter. "If you don't change course, [you] will suffer consequences."

What would have transpired had the captain of the Decatur not altered course? On that occasion, the world was lucky: the captain acted swiftly and avoided danger. But what about the next time, with tensions in the South China Sea and around Taiwan at a far higher pitch than in 2018? Such luck might not hold and a collision, or the use of weaponry to avoid it, could trigger immediate military action on either side, followed by a potentially unpredictable escalating cycle of countermoves leading who knows where.

Under such circumstances, a war nobody wanted between the U.S. and China could suddenly erupt essentially by happenstance — a war this planet simply can't afford. Sadly, the combination of inflammatory rhetoric at a diplomatic level and a propensity for backing up such words with aggressive military actions in highly contested areas still seems to be at the top of the Sino-American agenda.

Chinese and American leaders are now playing a game of chicken that couldn't be more dangerous for both countries and the planet. Isn't it time for the new Biden administration and its Chinese opposite to grasp more clearly and deeply that their hostile behaviors and decisions could have unforeseeable and catastrophic consequences? Strident language and provocative military maneuvers — even if only intended as political messaging — could precipitate a calamitous outcome, much in the way equivalent behavior in 1914 triggered the colossal tragedy of World War I.

Copyright 2021 Michael T. Klare

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is the five-college professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and a senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. He is the author of 15 books, the latest of which is All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change. He is a founder of the Committee for a Sane U.S.-China Policy.

A pernicious legacy: How Trump put the US on a path for cataclysmic war

In the military realm, Donald Trump will most likely be remembered for his insistence on ending America's involvement in its twenty-first-century "forever wars" -- the fruitless, relentless, mind-crushing military campaigns undertaken by Presidents Bush and Obama in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Somalia. After all, as a candidate, Trump pledged to bring U.S. troops home from those dreaded war zones and, in his last days in office, he's been promising to get at least most of the way to that objective. The president's fixation on this issue (and the opposition of his own generals and other officials on the subject) has generated a fair amount of media coverage and endeared him to his isolationist supporters. Yet, however newsworthy it may be, this focus on Trump's belated troop withdrawals obscures a far more significant aspect of his military legacy: the conversion of the U.S. military from a global counterterror force into one designed to fight an all-out, cataclysmic, potentially nuclear war with China and/or Russia.

People seldom notice that Trump's approach to military policy has always been two-faced. Even as he repeatedly denounced the failure of his predecessors to abandon those endless counterinsurgency wars, he bemoaned their alleged neglect of America's regular armed forces and promised to spend whatever it took to "restore" their fighting strength. "In a Trump administration," he declared in a September 2016 campaign speech on national security, America's military priorities would be reversed, with a withdrawal from the "endless wars we are caught in now" and the restoration of "our unquestioned military strength."

Once in office, he acted to implement that very agenda, instructing his surrogates -- a succession of national security advisers and secretaries of defense -- to commence U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan (though he agreed for a time to increase troop levels in Afghanistan), while submitting ever-mounting defense budgets. The Pentagon's annual spending authority climbed every year between 2016 and 2020, rising from $580 billion at the start of his administration to $713 at the end, with much of that increment directed to the procurement of advanced weaponry. Additional billions were incorporated into the Department of Energy budget for the acquisition of new nuclear weapons and the full-scale "modernization" of the country's nuclear arsenal.

Far more important than that increase in arms spending, however, was the shift in strategy that went with it. The military posture President Trump inherited from the Obama administration was focused on fighting the Global War on Terror (GWOT), a grueling, never-ending struggle to identify, track, and destroy anti-Western zealots in far-flung areas of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The posture he's bequeathing to Joe Biden is almost entirely focused on defeating China and Russia in future "high-end" conflicts waged directly against those two countries -- fighting that would undoubtedly involve high-tech conventional weapons on a staggering scale and could easily trigger nuclear war.

From the GWOT to the GPC

It's impossible to overstate the significance of the Pentagon's shift from a strategy aimed at fighting relatively small bands of militants to one aimed at fighting the military forces of China and Russia on the peripheries of Eurasia. The first entailed the deployment of scattered bands of infantry and Special Operations Forces units backed by patrolling aircraft and missile-armed drones; the other envisions the commitment of multiple aircraft carriers, fighter squadrons, nuclear-capable bombers, and brigade-strength armored divisions. Similarly, in the GWOT years, it was generally assumed that U.S. troops would face adversaries largely armed with light infantry weapons and homemade bombs, not, as in any future war with China or Russia, an enemy equipped with advanced tanks, planes, missiles, ships, and a full range of nuclear munitions.

This shift in outlook from counterterrorism to what, in these years, has come to be known in Washington as "great power competition," or GPC, was first officially articulated in the Pentagon's National Security Strategy of February 2018. "The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security," it insisted, "is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by what the National Security Strategy classifies as revisionist powers," a catchphrase for China and Russia. (It used those rare italics to emphasize just how significant this was.)

For the Department of Defense and the military services, this meant only one thing: from that moment on, so much of what they did would be aimed at preparing to fight and defeat China and/or Russia in high-intensity conflict. As Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis put it to the Senate Armed Services Committee that April, "The 2018 National Defense Strategy provides clear strategic direction for America's military to reclaim an era of strategic purpose... Although the Department continues to prosecute the campaign against terrorists, long-term strategic competition -- not terrorism -- is now the primary focus of U.S. national security."

This being the case, Mattis added, America's armed forces would have to be completely re-equipped with new weaponry intended for high-intensity combat against well-armed adversaries. "Our military remains capable, but our competitive edge has eroded in every domain of warfare," he noted. "The combination of rapidly changing technology [and] the negative impact on military readiness resulting from the longest continuous period of combat in our nation's history [has] created an overstretched and under-resourced military." In response, we must "accelerate modernization programs in a sustained effort to solidify our competitive advantage."

In that same testimony, Mattis laid out the procurement priorities that have since governed planning as the military seeks to "solidify" its competitive advantage. First comes the "modernization" of the nation's nuclear weapons capabilities, including its nuclear command-control-and-communications systems; then, the expansion of the Navy through the acquisition of startling numbers of additional surface ships and submarines, along with the modernization of the Air Force, through the accelerated procurement of advanced combat planes; finally, to ensure the country's military superiority for decades to come, vastly increased investment in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, hypersonics, and cyber warfare.

These priorities have by now been hard-wired into the military budget and govern Pentagon planning. Last February, when submitting its proposed budget for fiscal year (FY) 2021, for example, the Department of Defense asserted, "The FY 2021 budget supports the irreversible implementation of the National Defense Strategy (NDS), which drives the Department's decision-making in reprioritizing resources and shifting investments to prepare for a potential future, high-end fight." This nightmarish vision, in other words, is the military future President Trump will leave to the Biden administration.

The Navy in the Lead

From the very beginning, Donald Trump has emphasized the expansion of the Navy as an overriding objective. "When Ronald Reagan left office, our Navy had 592 ships... Today, the Navy has just 276 ships," he lamented in that 2016 campaign speech. One of his first priorities as president, he asserted, would be to restore its strength. "We will build a Navy of 350 surface ships and submarines," he promised. Once in office, the "350-ship Navy" (later increased to 355 ships) became a mantra.

In emphasizing a big Navy, Trump was influenced to some degree by the sheer spectacle of large modern warships, especially aircraft carriers with their scores of combat planes. "Our carriers are the centerpiece of American military might overseas," he insisted while visiting the nearly completed carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, in March 2017. "We are standing here today on four-and-a-half acres of combat power and sovereign U.S. territory, the likes of which there is nothing... there is no competition to this ship."

Not surprisingly, top Pentagon officials embraced the president's big-Navy vision with undisguised enthusiasm. The reason: they view China as their number one adversary and believe that any future conflict with that country will largely be fought from the Pacific Ocean and nearby seas -- that being the only practical way to concentrate U.S. firepower against China's increasingly built-up coastal defenses.

Then-Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper expressed this outlook well when, in September, he deemed Beijing the Pentagon's "top strategic competitor" and the Indo-Pacific region its "priority theater" in planning for future wars. The waters of that region, he suggested, represent "the epicenter of great power competition with China" and so were witnessing increasingly provocative behavior by Chinese air and naval units. In the face of such destabilizing activity, "the United States must be ready to deter conflict and, if necessary, fight and win at sea."

In that address, Esper made it clear that the U.S. Navy remains vastly superior to its Chinese counterpart. Nonetheless, he asserted, "We must stay ahead; we must retain our overmatch; and we will keep building modern ships to ensure we remain the world's greatest Navy."

Although Trump fired Esper on November 9th for, among other things, resisting White House demands to speed up the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, the former defense secretary's focus on fighting China from the Pacific and adjacent seas remains deeply embedded in Pentagon strategic thinking and will be a legacy of the Trump years. In support of such a policy, billions of dollars have already been committed to the construction of new surface ships and submarines, ensuring that such a legacy will persist for years, if not decades to come.

Do Like Patton: Strike Deep, Strike Hard

Trump said little about what should be done for U.S. ground forces during the 2016 campaign, except to indicate that he wanted them even bigger and better equipped. What he did do, however, was speak of his admiration for World War II Army generals known for their aggressive battle tactics. "I was a fan of Douglas MacArthur. I was a fan of George Patton," he told Maggie Haberman and David Sanger of the New York Times that March. "If we had Douglas MacArthur today or if we had George Patton today and if we had a president that would let them do their thing you wouldn't have ISIS, okay?"

Trump's reverence for General Patton has proven especially suggestive in a new era of great-power competition, as U.S. and NATO forces again prepare to face well-equipped land armies on the continent of Europe, much as they did during World War II. Back then, it was the tank corps of Nazi Germany that Patton's own tanks confronted on the Western Front. Today, U.S. and NATO forces face Russia's best-equipped armies in Eastern Europe along a line stretching from the Baltic republics and Poland in the north to Romania in the south. If a war with Russia were to break out, much of the fighting would likely occur along this line, with main-force units from both sides engaged in head-on, high-intensity combat.

Since the Cold War ended in 1991 with the implosion of the Soviet Union, American strategists had devoted little serious thought to high-intensity ground combat against a well-equipped adversary in Europe. Now, with East-West tensions rising and U.S. forces again facing well-armed potential foes in what increasingly looks like a military-driven version of the Cold War, that problem is receiving far more attention.

This time around, however, U.S. forces face a very different combat environment. In the Cold War years, Western strategists generally imagined a contest of brute strength in which our tanks and artillery would battle theirs along hundreds of miles of front lines until one side or the other was thoroughly depleted and had no choice but to sue for peace (or ignite a global nuclear catastrophe). Today's strategists, however, imagine far more multidimensional (or "multi-domain") warfare extending to the air and well into rear areas, as well as into space and cyberspace. In such an environment, they've come to believe that the victor will have to act swiftly, delivering paralyzing blows to what they call the enemy's C3I capabilities (critical command, control, communications, and intelligence) in a matter of days, or even hours. Only then would powerful armored units be able to strike deep into enemy territory and, in true Patton fashion, ensure a Russian defeat.

The U.S. military has labeled such a strategy "all-domain warfare" and assumes that the U.S. will indeed dominate space, cyberspace, airspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum. In a future confrontation with Russian forces in Europe, as the doctrine lays it out, U.S. air power would seek control of the airspace above the battlefield, while using guided missiles to knock out Russian radar systems, missile batteries, and their C3I facilities. The Army would conduct similar strikes using a new generation of long-range artillery systems and ballistic missiles. Only when Russia's defensive capabilities were thoroughly degraded would that Army follow up with a ground assault, Patton-style.

Be Prepared to Fight with Nukes

As imagined by senior Pentagon strategists, any future conflict with China or Russia is likely to entail intense, all-out combat on the ground, at sea, and in the air aimed at destroying an enemy's critical military infrastructure in the first hours or, at most, days of battle, opening the way for a swift U.S. invasion of enemy territory. This sounds like a winning strategy -- but only if you possess all the advantages in weaponry and technology. If not, what then? This is the quandary faced by Chinese and Russian strategists whose forces don't quite match up to the power of the American ones. While their own war planning remains, to date, a mystery, it's hard not to imagine that the Chinese and Russian equivalents of the Pentagon high command are pondering the possibility of a nuclear response to any all-out American assault on their militaries and territories.

The examination of available Russian military literature has led some Western analysts to conclude that the Russians are indeed increasing their reliance on "tactical" nuclear weapons to obliterate superior U.S./NATO forces before an invasion of their country could be mounted (much as, in the previous century, U.S. forces relied on just such weaponry to avert a possible Soviet invasion of Western Europe). Russian military analysts have indeed published articles exploring just such an option -- sometimes described by the phrase "escalate to de-escalate" (a misnomer if ever there was one) -- although Russian military officials have never openly discussed such tactics. Still, the Trump administration has cited that unofficial literature as evidence of Russian plans to employ tactical nukes in a future East-West confrontation and used it to justify the acquisition of new U.S. weapons of just this sort.

"Russian strategy and doctrine... mistakenly assesses that the threat of nuclear escalation or actual first use of nuclear weapons would serve to 'de-escalate' a conflict on terms favorable to Russia," the administration's Nuclear Posture Review of 2018 asserts. "To correct any Russian misperceptions of advantage... the president must have a range of limited and graduated [nuclear] options, including a variety of delivery systems and explosive yields." In furtherance of such a policy, that review called for the introduction of two new types of nuclear munitions: a "low-yield" warhead (meaning it could, say, pulverize Lower Manhattan without destroying all of New York City) for a Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile and a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile.

As in so many of the developments described above, this Trump initiative will prove difficult to reverse in the Biden years. After all, the first W76-2 low-yield warheads have already rolled off the assembly lines, been installed on missiles, and are now deployed on Trident submarines at sea. These could presumably be removed from service and decommissioned, but this has rarely occurred in recent military history and, to do so, a new president would have to go against his own military high command. Even more difficult would be to negate the strategic rationale behind their deployment. During the Trump years, the notion that nuclear arms could be used as ordinary weapons of war in future great-power conflicts took deep root in Pentagon thinking and erasing it will prove to be no easy feat.

Amid arguments over the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Somalia, amid the firings and sudden replacements of civilian leaders at the Pentagon, Donald Trump's most significant legacy -- the one that could lead not to yet more forever wars but to a forever disaster -- has passed almost unnoticed in the media and in political circles in Washington.

Supporters of the new administration and even members of Biden's immediate circle (though not his actual appointees to national security posts) have advanced some stirring ideas about transforming American military policy, including reducing the role military force plays in America's foreign relations and redeploying some military funds to other purposes like fighting Covid-19. Such ideas are to be welcomed, but President Biden's top priority in the military area should be to focus on the true Trump military legacy -- the one that has set us on a war course in relation to China and Russia -- and do everything in his power to steer us in a safer, more prudent direction. Otherwise, the phrase "forever war" could gain a new, far grimmer meaning.

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is the five-college professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and a senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. He is the author of 15 books, the latest of which is All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Michael T. Klare

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Are We on the Road to World War III?

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When it comes to relations between Donald Trump’s America, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and Xi Jinping’s China, observers everywhere are starting to talk about a return to an all-too-familiar past. “Now we have a new Cold War,” commented Russia expert Peter Felgenhauer in Moscow after President Trump recently announced plans to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The Trump administration is "launching a new Cold War," said historian Walter Russell Mead in the Wall Street Journal, following a series of anti-Chinese measures approved by the president in October. And many others are already chiming in.

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How Donald Trump Plans to Enlist Fossil Fuels in the Struggle for Global Dominance

The new U.S. energy policy of the Trump era is, in some ways, the oldest energy policy on Earth. Every great power has sought to mobilize the energy resources at its command, whether those be slaves, wind-power, coal, or oil, to further its hegemonic ambitions. What makes the Trumpian variant -- the unfettered exploitation of America’s fossil-fuel reserves -- unique lies only in the moment it’s being applied and the likely devastation that will result, thanks not only to the 1950s-style polluting of America’s air, waters, and urban environment, but to the devastating hand it will lend to a globally warming world.

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Trump Is Trying to Make Dropping Nukes a 'Mainstream' Approach to War

Maybe you thought America’s nuclear arsenal, with its thousands of city-busting, potentially civilization-destroying thermonuclear warheads, was plenty big enough to deter any imaginable adversary from attacking the U.S. with nukes of their own. Well, it turns out you were wrong.

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