Michael Klare

There's only one way to save the planet from climate Armageddon

This summer we witnessed, with brutal clarity, the Beginning of the End: the end of Earth as we know it — a world of lush forests, bountiful croplands, livable cities, and survivable coastlines. In its place, we saw the early manifestations of a climate-damaged planet, with scorched forests, parched fields, scalding cities, and storm-wracked coastlines. In a desperate bid to prevent far worse, leaders from around the world will soon gather in Glasgow, Scotland, for a U.N. Climate Summit. You can count on one thing, though: all their plans will fall far short of what's needed unless backed by the only strategy that can save the planet: a U.S.-China Climate Survival Alliance.

Of course, politicians, scientific groups, and environmental organizations will offer plans of every sort in Glasgow to reduce global carbon emissions and slow the process of planetary incineration. President Biden's representatives will tout his promise to promote renewable energy and install electric-car-charging stations nationwide, while President Macron of France will offer his own ambitious proposals, as will many other leaders. However, no combination of these, even if carried out, would prove sufficient to prevent global disaster — not as long as China and the U.S. continue to prioritize trade competition and war preparations over planetary survival.

In the end, it's not complicated. If the planet's two "great" powers refuse to cooperate in a meaningful way in tackling the climate threat, we're done for.

That harsh reality was made clear in September. The United Nations then issued a report on the likely impact of pledges already made by the nations that signed the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement (from which President Trump withdrew in 2017 and which the U.S. has only recently rejoined). According to the U.N.'s analysis, even if all 200 signatories were to abide by their pledges — and almost none have — global temperatures are likely to rise by 2.7 degrees Celsius (nearly 5 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels by century's end. And that, in turn, most scientists agree, is a recipe for catastrophically irreversible changes to the planetary ecosphere, including the kind of sea level rise that will inundate most American coastal cities (and many others around the world) and the sort of heat, fire, and drought that will turn the American West into an uninhabitable wasteland.

Scientists generally agree that, to avert such catastrophic outcomes, global warming must not exceed, at worst, 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels — and preferably, no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Mind you, the planet has already warmed 1 degree Celsius and we've only recently seen just how much damage even that amount of added heat can produce. To limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius, by 2030, scientists believe, global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions would have to be reduced by 25% from 2018 levels; to limit it to 1.5 degrees, by 55%. Yet those emissions — driven by strong economic growth in China, India, and other rapidly industrializing nations — have actually been on an upward trajectory, rising on average by 1.8% per year between 2009 and 2019.

Several European countries, including Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands, have launched heroic efforts to lower their emissions to reach that 1.5 degree target, setting an example for nations with far bigger economies. But however admirable, in the grand scheme of things, they just won't matter enough to save the planet. Only the United States and China, by far the world's top two carbon emitters, are in a position to do so.

It all boils down to this: to save human civilization, the U.S. and China must dramatically reduce their CO2 emissions, while working together to persuade other major carbon-emitting nations, beginning with fast-rising India, to follow suit. That would, of course, mean setting aside their current antagonisms, however important they may seem to U.S. and Chinese leaders today, and instead making climate survival their number one priority and policy objective. Otherwise, put simply, all is lost.

The U.S.-China Carbon Juggernaut

To fully grasp just how central China and the United States (the largest carbon polluter in history) are to the global climate-change equation, you have to grasp their present roles in both carbon consumption and CO2 emissions.

In 2020, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2021 (a widely respected source), China was the world's top user of coal, the most carbon-intense of the three fossil fuels. That country was responsible for a staggering 54.3% of total world consumption; India came in second at 11.6%; and the U.S. third at 6.1%. When it came to petroleum consumption, the U.S. took first place with 19.9% of world usage and China came in second with 15.7%. The U.S. was also number one when it came to consumption of natural gas, followed by Russia and China.

Combine all three kinds and China and the U.S. were jointly responsible for 42% of total global fossil-fuel consumption in 2020. No other countries came even remotely close. Rising fast in the energy realm, India accounted for 6.2% of global fossil-fuel consumption and the European Union for 8.5%, which should give you some idea of the way the two countries dominate the global energy equation.

Not surprisingly, since they're responsible for such a large share of fossil-fuel consumption every year and the combustion of those fuels is responsible for the overwhelming majority of global carbon emissions, China and the U.S. also account for a comparably large share of those discharges. According to BP, China was the world's leading source of CO2 emissions in 2020, responsible for 30.7% of the global total, while the United States came in second with 13.8%. No other country even reached double digits and the European Union as a whole accounted for only 7.9%.

Put simply, the heating of this planet can't be slowed down and eventually stopped if the U.S. and China don't slash their carbon emissions drastically in the coming decades and invest massively — on a scale comparable to preparing for a world war — in alternative energy systems. We're talking about trillions of dollars of future expenses. But there's really no choice, not if we want to save our civilization.

The Mastodon in the Room

Any strategy to substantially reduce global CO2 emissions and keep global warming from exceeding 2 degrees (let alone 1.5 degrees) Celsius above pre-industrial levels must confront the largest obstacle to success around: China's continuing reliance on coal to provide the lion's share of its energy supply. According to BP, in 2020, China obtained 57% of its primary energy needs from coal. No other country comes close to that. If China was responsible for 26% of total world energy consumption that year, then its coal combustion alone constituted 15% of global energy usage — a greater share than Europe's from all energy sources combined.

If China phases out its coal plants in this decade and other countries followed through on their Paris commitments, meeting that target of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius and avoiding a climate Armageddon would at least be possible. But that's not the way China's headed. Not faintly. According to some reports, that country is actually expected to boost (yes, boost!) its coal consumption in this decade by adding 88 gigawatts of coal-fired power capacity. (A large, modern coal-fired plant can generate about 1 gigawatt of electricity at a time.) Worse yet, its officials are mulling over plans to sooner or later build another 159 gigawatts worth. Because coal is the most carbon-intensive of the fossil fuels, to construct and operate so many new coal-powered plants will add monstrously to China's CO2 emissions, making a sharp reduction in global emissions impossible.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has indeed spoken of building an "ecological civilization" and has also promised to halt the rise in China's carbon emissions by 2030. For a time, it appeared that he was even prepared to take stern measures to halt the growth of China's coal consumption. He did, in fact, pledge that his country would reach peak oil consumption by 2025 and halt the financing of the construction of coal plants abroad as part of its globalizing "Belt and Road Initiative," a major shift in policy. But it seems that his government has otherwise turned a blind eye to efforts by provincial governments and powerful state-owned energy firms to rush the construction of new coal plants at home.

Western analysts believe that Chinese leaders are desperate to propel economic expansion in the wake of the Covid pandemic. Offering cheap energy from coal is one obvious way of facilitating investment in new infrastructure projects, a standard tactic for boosting growth. Some analysts also suspect that Beijing has allowed coal production to increase in response to U.S. trade sanctions and other expressions of Washington's hostility. "The recent U.S.-China trade war has further heightened Chinese concerns about energy security, given that the country imports roughly 70% of its oil needs and 40% of its gas requirements," Daniel Gardner of Princeton's High Meadow Environmental Group pointed out in the Los Angeles Times, adding, "Coal — abundant and relatively inexpensive — seems to many a reliable, tried-and-true energy source."

Why a U.S.-China Climate Survival Alliance is Essential

Recently, during a meeting with top officials in Tianjin, President Biden's global climate envoy, former Secretary of State John Kerry, chided the Chinese for their addiction to coal. "Adding some 200-plus gigawatts of coal over the last five years, and now another 200 or so coming online in the planning stage, if it went to fruition would actually undo the ability of the rest of the world to achieve a limit of 1.5 degrees [Celsius]," he reportedly said to them during their interchange.

There was, however, no way Chinese leaders were going to respond positively to his entreaties, given the growing hostility between the U.S. and China. Even more than during the final Trump years, Washington under President Biden has voiced support for Taiwan — considered a renegade province by Beijing — while seeking to encircle China with an ever-more-militarized network of anti-Chinese alliances. These include the newly formed "AUKUS" (Australia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.) pact that also involved the ominous promise to sell American nuclear-powered submarines to the Australians. Chinese leaders have responded angrily that any progress on climate change must await improvement in what they consider more critical aspects of their relationship with America.

"China-U.S. cooperation on climate change cannot be divorced from the overall situation of China-U.S. relations," Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Kerry during his September visit to China. "The U.S. side wants the climate change cooperation to be an 'oasis' of China-U.S. relations. However, if the oasis is all surrounded by deserts, then sooner or later, the 'oasis' will be desertified."

In theory, the two countries could pursue the goal of radical decarbonization on their own — each independently spending the necessary trillions of dollars on domestic energy transformation. It is, however, essentially impossible to imagine such an outcome in today's world of intensifying military and economic competition. In March, for instance, China announced a 6.8% increase in military spending for 2021, raising the official budget of the People's Liberation Army to $209 billion. (Many analysts believe the actual figure is much higher.) Similarly, on Sept. 23rd, the U.S. House of Representatives authorized defense spending of $740 billion for Fiscal Year 2022, $24 billion more than the staggering sum requested by the Biden administration. Both countries are also moving to "decouple" their critical supply lines, while investing vast amounts in the race to dominate technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, and microelectronics assumed to be essential to future success, whether in trade wars or actual ones. Neither is planning to invest anything faintly comparable in efforts to slow the pace of global warming and so save the planet.

Only when China and the United States elevate the threat of climate change above their geopolitical rivalry will it be possible to envision action on a sufficient scale to avert the future incineration of this planet and the collapse of human civilization. This should hardly be an impossible political or intellectual stretch. On January 27th, in an Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis, President Biden did, in fact, decree that "climate considerations shall be an essential element of United States foreign policy and national security." That same day, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin issued a companion statement, saying that his "Department will immediately take appropriate policy actions to prioritize climate change considerations in our activities and risk assessments, to mitigate this driver of insecurity." (At the moment, however, the thought that Republicans in Congress would support such positions, no less fund them, is beyond imagining.)

In any case, such comments have already been overshadowed by the Biden administration's fixation on dominating China globally, as have any comparable impulses on the part of the Chinese leadership. Still, the understanding is there: climate change poses an overwhelming existential threat to both American and Chinese "security," a reality that will only grow fiercer as greenhouse gases continue to pour into our atmosphere. To defend their respective homelands not against each other but against nature, both sides will increasingly be compelled to devote ever more funds and resources to flood protection, disaster relief, fire-fighting, seawall construction, infrastructure replacement, population resettlement, and other staggeringly expensive, climate-related undertakings. At some point, such costs will far exceed the amounts needed to fight a war between us.

Once this reckoning sinks in, perhaps U.S. and Chinese officials will begin forging an alliance aimed at defending their own countries and the world against the coming ravages of climate change. If John Kerry were to return to China and tell its leadership, "We are phasing out all our coal plants, working to eliminate our reliance on petroleum, and are prepared to negotiate a mutual reduction in Pacific naval and missile forces," then he could also say to his Chinese counterparts, "You need to start phasing out your coal use now — and here's how we think you can do it."

Once such an agreement was achieved, Presidents Biden and Xi could turn to Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, and say, "You must follow in our footsteps and eliminate your dependence on fossil fuels." And then, the three together could tell the leaders of every other nation: "Do as we're doing, and we'll support you. Oppose us, and you'll be cut off from the world economy and perish."

That's how to save this planet from a climate Armageddon. There really is no other way.

Copyright 2021 Michael Klare

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his 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.

On the brink in 2026: A vision of the bleak future of zero-sum conflict between the U.S. and China

It's the summer of 2026, five years after the Biden administration identified the People's Republic of China as the principal threat to U.S. security and Congress passed a raft of laws mandating a society-wide mobilization to ensure permanent U.S. domination of the Asia-Pacific region. Although major armed conflict between the United States and China has not yet broken out, numerous crises have erupted in the western Pacific and the two countries are constantly poised for war. International diplomacy has largely broken down, with talks over climate change, pandemic relief, and nuclear nonproliferation at a standstill. For most security analysts, it's not a matter of if a U.S.-China war will erupt, but when.

Does this sound fanciful? Not if you read the statements coming out of the Department of Defense (DoD) and the upper ranks of Congress these days.

"China poses the greatest long-term challenge to the United States and strengthening deterrence against China will require DoD to work in concert with other instruments of national power," the Pentagon's 2022 Defense Budget Overview asserts. "A combat-credible Joint Force will underpin a whole-of-nation approach to competition and ensure the Nation leads from a position of strength."

On this basis, the Pentagon requested $715 billion in military expenditures for 2022, with a significant chunk of those funds to be spent on the procurement of advanced ships, planes, and missiles intended for a potential all-out, "high-intensity" war with China. An extra $38 billion was sought for the design and production of nuclear weapons, another key aspect of the drive to overpower China.

Democrats and Republicans in Congress, contending that even such sums were insufficient to ensure continued U.S. superiority vis-à-vis that country, are pressing for further increases in the 2022 Pentagon budget. Many have also endorsed the EAGLE Act, short for Ensuring American Global Leadership and Engagement — a measure intended to provide hundreds of billions of dollars for increased military aid to America's Asian allies and for research on advanced technologies deemed essential for any future high-tech arms race with China.

Imagine, then, that such trends only gain momentum over the next five years. What will this country be like in 2026? What can we expect from an intensifying new Cold War with China that, by then, could be on the verge of turning hot?

Taiwan 2026: Perpetually on the Brink

Crises over Taiwan have erupted on a periodic basis since the start of the decade, but now, in 2026, they seem to be occurring every other week. With Chinese bombers and warships constantly probing Taiwan's outer defenses and U.S. naval vessels regularly maneuvering close to their Chinese counterparts in waters near the island, the two sides never seem far from a shooting incident that would have instantaneous escalatory implications. So far, no lives have been lost, but planes and ships from both sides have narrowly missed colliding again and again. On each occasion, forces on both sides have been placed on high alert, causing jitters around the world.

The tensions over that island have largely stemmed from incremental efforts by Taiwanese leaders, mostly officials of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), to move their country from autonomous status as part of China to full independence. Such a move is bound to provoke a harsh, possibly military response from Beijing, which considers the island a renegade province.

The island's status has plagued U.S.-China relations for decades. When, on January 1, 1979, Washington first recognized the People's Republic of China, it agreed to withdraw diplomatic recognition from the Taiwanese government and cease formal relations with its officials. Under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, however, U.S. officials were obligated to conduct informal relations with Taipei. The act stipulated as well that any move by Beijing to alter Taiwan's status by force would be considered "a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States" — a stance known as "strategic ambiguity," as it neither guaranteed American intervention, nor ruled it out.

In the ensuing decades, the U.S. sought to avoid conflict in the region by persuading Taipei not to make any overt moves toward independence and by minimizing its ties to the island, thereby discouraging aggressive moves by China. By 2021, however, the situation had been remarkably transformed. Once under the exclusive control of the Nationalist Party that had been defeated by communist forces on the Chinese mainland in 1949, Taiwan became a multiparty democracy in 1987. It has since witnessed the steady rise of pro-independence forces, led by the DPP. At first, the mainland regime sought to woo the Taiwanese with abundant trade and tourism opportunities, but the excessive authoritarianism of its Communist Party alienated many island residents — especially younger ones — only adding momentum to the drive for independence. This, in turn, has prompted Beijing to switch tactics from courtship to coercion by constantly sending its combat planes and ships into Taiwanese air and sea space.

Trump administration officials, less concerned about alienating Beijing than their predecessors, sought to bolster ties with the Taiwanese government in a series of gestures that Beijing found threatening and that were only expanded in the early months of the Biden administration. At that time, growing hostility to China led many in Washington to call for an end to "strategic ambiguity" and the adoption of an unequivocal pledge to defend Taiwan if it were to come under attack from the mainland.

"I think the time has come to be clear," Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas declared in February 2021. "Replace strategic ambiguity with strategic clarity that the United States will come to the aid of Taiwan if China was to forcefully invade Taiwan."

The Biden administration was initially reluctant to adopt such an inflammatory stance, since it meant that any conflict between China and Taiwan would automatically become a U.S.-China war with nuclear ramifications. In April 2022, however, under intense congressional pressure, the Biden administration formally abandoned "strategic ambiguity" and vowed that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would prompt an immediate American military response. "We will never allow Taiwan to be subjugated by military force," President Biden declared at that time, a striking change in a longstanding American strategic position.

The DoD would soon announce the deployment of a permanent naval squadron to the waters surrounding Taiwan, including an aircraft carrier and a supporting flotilla of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. Ely Ratner, President Biden's top envoy for the Asia-Pacific region, first outlined plans for such a force in June 2021 during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. A permanent U.S. presence, he suggested, would serve to "deter, and, if necessary, deny a fait accompli scenario" in which Chinese forces quickly attempted to overwhelm Taiwan. Although described as tentative then, it would, in fact, become formal policy following President Biden's April 2022 declaration on Taiwan and a brief exchange of warning shots between a Chinese destroyer and a U.S. cruiser just south of the Taiwan Strait.

Today, in 2026, with a U.S. naval squadron constantly sailing in waters near Taiwan and Chinese ships and planes constantly menacing the island's outer defenses, a potential Sino-American military clash never seems far off. Should that occur, what would happen is impossible to predict, but most analysts now assume that both sides would immediately fire their advanced missiles — many of them hypersonic (that is, exceeding five times the speed of sound) — at their opponent's key bases and facilities. This, in turn, would provoke further rounds of air and missile strikes, probably involving attacks on Chinese and Taiwanese cities as well as U.S. bases in Japan, Okinawa, South Korea, and Guam. Whether such a conflict could be contained at the non-nuclear level remains anyone's guess.

The Incremental Draft

In the meantime, planning for a U.S.-China war-to-come has dramatically reshaped American society and institutions. The "Forever Wars" of the first two decades of the twenty-first century had been fought entirely by an All-Volunteer Force (AVF) that typically endured multiple tours of duty, in particular in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. was able to sustain such combat operations (while continuing to maintain a substantial troop presence in Europe, Japan, and South Korea) with 1.4 million servicemembers because American forces enjoyed uncontested control of the airspace over its war zones, while China and Russia remained wary of engaging U.S. forces in their own neighborhoods.

Today, in 2026, however, the picture looks radically different: China, with an active combat force of two million soldiers, and Russia, with another million — both militaries equipped with advanced weaponry not widely available to them in the early years of the century — pose a far more formidable threat to U.S. forces. An AVF no longer looks particularly viable, so plans for its replacement with various forms of conscription are already being put into place.

Bear in mind, however, that in a future war with China and/or Russia, the Pentagon doesn't envision large-scale ground battles reminiscent of World War II or the Iraq invasion of 2003. Instead, it expects a series of high-tech battles involving large numbers of ships, planes, and missiles. This, in turn, limits the need for vast conglomerations of ground troops, or "grunts," as they were once labeled, but increases the need for sailors, pilots, missile launchers, and the kinds of technicians who can keep so many high-tech systems at top operational capacity.

As early as October 2020, during the final months of the Trump administration, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was already calling for a doubling of the size of the U.S. naval fleet, from approximately 250 to 500 combat vessels, to meet the rising threat from China. Clearly, however, there would be no way for a force geared to a 250-ship navy to sustain one double that size. Even if some of the additional ships were "uncrewed," or robotic, the Navy would still have to recruit several hundred thousand more sailors and technicians to supplement the 330,000 then in the force. Much the same could be said of the U.S. Air Force.

No surprise, then, that an incremental restoration of the draft, abandoned in 1973 as the Vietnam War was drawing to a close, has taken place in these years. In 2022, Congress passed the National Service Reconstitution Act (NSRA), which requires all men and women aged 18 to 25 to register with newly reconstituted National Service Centers and to provide them with information on their residence, employment status, and educational background — information they are required to update on an annual basis. In 2023, the NSRA was amended to require registrants to complete an additional questionnaire on their technical, computer, and language skills. Since 2024, all men and women enrolled in computer science and related programs at federally aided colleges and universities have been required to enroll in the National Digital Reserve Corps (NDRC) and spend their summers working on defense-related programs at selected military installations and headquarters. Members of that Digital Corps must also be available on short notice for deployment to such facilities, should a conflict of any sort threaten to break out.

The establishment of just such a corps, it should be noted, had been a recommendation of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, a federal agency established in 2019 to advise Congress and the White House on how to prepare the nation for a high-tech arms race with China. "We must win the AI competition that is intensifying strategic competition with China," the commission avowed in March 2021, given that "the human talent deficit is the government's most conspicuous AI deficit." To overcome it, the commission suggested then, "We should establish a… civilian National Reserve to grow tech talent with the same seriousness of purpose that we grow military officers. The digital age demands a digital corps."

Indeed, only five years later, with the prospect of a U.S.-China conflict so obviously on the agenda, Congress is considering a host of bills aimed at supplementing the Digital Corps with other mandatory service requirements for men and women with technical skills, or simply for the reinstatement of conscription altogether and the full-scale mobilization of the nation. Needless to say, protests against such measures have been erupting at many colleges and universities, but with the mood of the country becoming increasingly bellicose, there has been little support for them among the general public. Clearly, the "volunteer" military is about to become an artifact of a previous epoch.

A New Cold War Culture of Repression

With the White House, Congress, and the Pentagon obsessively focused on preparations for what's increasingly seen as an inevitable war with China, it's hardly surprising that civil society in 2026 has similarly been swept up in an increasingly militaristic anti-China spirit. Popular culture is now saturated with nationalistic and jingoistic memes, regularly portraying China and the Chinese leadership in derogatory, often racist terms. Domestic manufacturers hype "Made in America" labels (even if they're often inaccurate) and firms that once traded extensively with China loudly proclaim their withdrawal from that market, while the streaming superhero movie of the moment, The Beijing Conspiracy, on a foiled Chinese plot to disable the entire U.S. electrical grid, is the leading candidate for the best film Oscar.

Domestically, by far the most conspicuous and pernicious result of all this has been a sharp rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans, especially those assumed to be Chinese, whatever their origin. This disturbing phenomenon, which began at the outset of the Covid crisis, when President Trump, in a transparent effort to deflect blame for his mishandling of the pandemic, started using terms like "Chinese Virus" and "Kung Flu" to describe the disease. Attacks on Asian Americans rose precipitously then and continued to climb after Joe Biden took office and began vilifying Beijing for its human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. According to the watchdog group Stop AAPI Hate, some 6,600 anti-Asian incidents were reported in the U.S. between March 2020 and March 2021, with almost 40% of those events occurring in February and March 2021.

For observers of such incidents back then, the connection between anti-China policymaking at the national level and anti-Asian violence at the neighborhood level was incontrovertible. "When America China-bashes, then Chinese get bashed, and so do those who 'look Chinese,'" said Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University at that time. "American foreign policy in Asia is American domestic policy for Asians."

By 2026, most Chinatowns in America have been boarded up and those that remain open are heavily guarded by armed police. Most stores owned by Asian Americans (of whatever background) were long ago closed due to boycotts and vandalism, and Asian Americans think twice before leaving their homes.

The hostility and distrust exhibited toward Asian Americans at the neighborhood level has been replicated at the workplace and on university campuses, where Chinese Americans and Chinese-born citizens are now prohibited from working at laboratories in any technical field with military applications. Meanwhile, scholars of any background working on China-related topics are subject to close scrutiny by their employers and government officials. Anyone expressing positive comments about China or its government is routinely subjected to harassment, at best, or at worst, dismissal and FBI investigation.

As with the incremental draft, such increasingly restrictive measures were first adopted in a series of laws in 2022. But the foundation for much of this was the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, passed by the Senate in June of that year. Among other provisions, it barred federal funding to any college or university that hosted a Confucius Institute, a Chinese government program to promote that country's language and culture in foreign countries. It also empowered federal agencies to coordinate with university officials to "promote protection of controlled information as appropriate and strengthen defense against foreign intelligence services," especially Chinese ones.

Diverging From the Path of War

Yes, in reality, we're still in 2021, even if the Biden administration regularly cites China as our greatest threat. Naval incidents with that country's vessels in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait are indeed on the rise, as are anti-Asian-American sentiments domestically. Meanwhile, as the planet's two greatest greenhouse-gas emitters squabble, our world is growing hotter by the year.

Without question, something like the developments described above (and possibly far worse) will lie in our future unless action is taken to alter the path we're now on. All of those "2026" developments, after all, are rooted in trends and actions already under way that only appear to be gathering momentum at this moment. Bills like the Innovation and Competition Act enjoy near unanimous support among Democrats and Republicans, while strong majorities in both parties favor increased funding of Pentagon spending on China-oriented weaponry. With few exceptions — Senator Bernie Sanders among them — no one in the upper ranks of government is saying: Slow down. Don't launch another Cold War that could easily go hot.

"It is distressing and dangerous," as Sanders wrote recently in Foreign Affairs, "that a fast-growing consensus is emerging in Washington that views the U.S.-Chinese relationship as a zero-sum economic and military struggle." At a time when this planet faces ever more severe challenges from climate change, pandemics, and economic inequality, he added that "the prevalence of this view will create a political environment in which the cooperation that the world desperately needs will be increasingly difficult to achieve."

In other words, we Americans face an existential choice: Do we stand aside and allow the "fast-growing consensus" Sanders speaks of to shape national policy, while abandoning any hope of genuine progress on climate change or those other perils? Alternately, do we begin trying to exert pressure on Washington to adopt a more balanced relationship with China, one that would place at least as much emphasis on cooperation as on confrontation. If we fail at this, be prepared in 2026 or soon thereafter for the imminent onset of a catastrophic (possibly even nuclear) U.S.-China war.

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, Songlands (the final one in his 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.


'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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Beyond Harvey and Irma: Militarizing Homeland Security in the Climate-Change Era

Deployed to the Houston area to assist in Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, U.S. military forces hadn’t even completed their assignments when they were hurriedly dispatched to Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands to face Irma, the fiercest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. Florida Governor Rick Scott, who had sent members of the state National Guard to devastated Houston, anxiously recalled them while putting in place emergency measures for his own state. A small flotilla of naval vessels, originally sent to waters off Texas, was similarly redirected to the Caribbean, while specialized combat units drawn from as far afield as Colorado, Illinois, and Rhode Island were rushed to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Meanwhile, members of the California National Guard were being mobilizedto fight wildfires raging across that state (as across much of the West) during its hottest summer on record.

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Climate Change as Genocide: Inaction Equals Annihilation

Not since World War II have more human beings been at risk from disease and starvation than at this very moment. On March 10th, Stephen O’Brien, under secretary-general of the United Nations for humanitarian affairs, informed the Security Council that 20 million people in three African countries -- Nigeria, Somalia, and South Sudan -- as well as in Yemen were likely to die if not provided with emergency food and medical aid. “We are at a critical point in history,” he declared. “Already at the beginning of the year we are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the U.N.”  Without coordinated international action, he added, “people will simply starve to death [or] suffer and die from disease.”

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America Third: Donald Trump Is Giving the Phrase 'Multipolar World' New Meaning

If there’s a single consistent aspect to Donald Trump’s strategic vision, it’s this: U.S. foreign policy should always be governed by the simple principle of “America First,” with this country’s vital interests placed above those of all others.  “We will always put America’s interests first,” he declared in his victory speech in the early hours of November 9th.  “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first,” he insisted in his Inaugural Address on January 20th.  Since then, however, everything he’s done in the international arena has, intentionally or not, placed America’s interests behind those of its arch-rivals, China and Russia. So to be accurate, his guiding policy formula should really be relabeled America Third.

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Escalation Watch: Four Looming Flashpoints Facing President Trump

Within months of taking office, President Donald Trump is likely to face one or more major international crises, possibly entailing a risk of nuclear escalation. Not since the end of the Cold War has a new chief executive been confronted with as many potential flashpoints involving such a risk of explosive conflict. This proliferation of crises has been brewing for some time, but the situation appears especially ominous now given Trump’s pledge to bring American military force swiftly to bear on any threats of foreign transgression. With so much at risk, it’s none too soon to go on a permanent escalation watch, monitoring the major global hotspots for any sign of imminent flare-ups, hoping that early warnings (and the outcry that goes with them) might help avert catastrophe.

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Trump's Energy Policy Will Darken the Future With Disastrous Pollution and Dirty Air

Scroll through Donald Trump’s campaign promises or listen to his speeches and you could easily conclude that his energy policy consists of little more than a wish list drawn up by the major fossil fuel companies: lift environmental restrictions on oil and natural gas extraction, build the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, open more federal lands to drilling, withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, kill Obama’s Clean Power Plan, revive the coal mining industry, and so on and so forth ad infinitum.  In fact, many of his proposals have simply been lifted straight from the talking points of top energy industry officials and their lavishly financed allies in Congress.

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Emerging Right-Wing Climate Deniers Across the Globe (Maybe Even in the U.S.) Threaten the Future

In a year of record-setting heat on a blistered globe, with fast-warming oceans, fast-melting ice caps, and fast-rising sea levels, ratification of the December 2015 Paris climate summit agreement—already endorsed by most nations—should be a complete no-brainer. That it isn't tells you a great deal about our world. Global geopolitics and the possible rightward lurch of many countries (including a potential deal-breaking election in the United States that could put a climate denier in the White House) spell bad news for the fate of the Earth. It’s worth exploring how this might come to be.

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Hooked! The Unyielding Grip of Fossil Fuels on Global Life

Here’s the good news: wind power, solar power, and other renewable forms of energy are expanding far more quickly than anyone expected, ensuring that these systems will provide an ever-increasing share of our future energy supply. According to the most recent projections from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the U.S. Department of Energy, global consumption of wind, solar, hydropower, and other renewables will double between now and 2040, jumping from 64 to 131 quadrillion British thermal units (BTUs).

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Petro Countries on the Brink of Collapse as Oil Prices Remain at Ruinously Low Levels

Pity the poor petro-states. Once so wealthy from oil sales that they could finance wars, mega-projects, and domestic social peace simultaneously, some of them are now beset by internal strife or are on the brink of collapse as oil prices remain at ruinously low levels. Unlike other countries, which largely finance their governments through taxation, petro-states rely on their oil and natural gas revenues. Russia, for example, obtains about 50% of government income that way; Nigeria, 60%; and Saudi Arabia, a whopping 90%. When oil was selling at $100 per barrel or above, as was the case until 2014, these countries could finance lavish government projects and social welfare operations, ensuring widespread popular support.  Now, with oil below $50 and likely to persist at that level, they find themselves curbing public spending and fending off rising domestic discontent or even incipient revolt.

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There Will Be Chaos: Big Oil's Collapse and the Birth of a New World Order

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Delusional Thinking in Washington, Desperate Plight of a Declining Superpower

Take a look around the world and it’s hard not to conclude that the United States is a superpower in decline. Whether in Europe, Asia, or the Middle East, aspiring powers are flexing their muscles, ignoring Washington’s dictates, or actively combating them. Russia refuses to curtail its support for armed separatists in Ukraine; China refuses to abandon its base-building endeavors in the South China Sea; Saudi Arabia refuses to endorse the U.S.-brokered nuclear deal with Iran; the Islamic State movement (ISIS) refuses to capitulate in the face of U.S. airpower. What is a declining superpower supposed to do in the face of such defiance?

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Why the GOP's Vision of North America's Energy Future Should Scare All of Us

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Global Warming President Presides Over Drill-Baby-Drill America

This post originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. 

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Raging Energy Wars: Global Conflict Fueled by Oil and Natural Gas

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The Gravitational Pull of Planet Carbon

Listening to President Obama’s State of the Union address, it would have been easy to conclude that we were slowly but surely gaining in the war on climate change.  “Our energy policy is creating jobs and leading to a cleaner, safer planet,” the president said.  “Over the past eight years, the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth.”  Indeed, it’s true that in recent years, largely thanks to the dampening effects of the Great Recession, U.S. carbon emissions were in decline (though they grewby 2% in 2013).  Still, whatever the president may claim, we’re not heading toward a “cleaner, safer planet.”  If anything, we’re heading toward a dirtier, more dangerous world. 

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Uh Oh, the 'Energy Sources of the Future' Are the Same Ones Destroying Our Planet

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