From Deterrence to Doomsday?

A harbinger of bigger bombs and missiles to come?

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for, I investigate what an “America first” foreign policy actually means in practice.  What follows is an extract from the article in which I consider whether the U.S. military has morphed from a deterrent force (at least in its own eyes) to a doomsday machine.  This idea is inspired in part by an article that Dennis Showalter, a fine historian and an even better friend, wrote back in 2000 about the German military prior to World War I.  Excerpt follows:

Deterring Our Way to Doomsday

Who put America’s oil under all those Middle Eastern deserts?  That was the question antiwar demonstrators asked with a certain grim humor before the invasion of Iraq.  In Trump’s oft-stated opinion, the U.S. should indeed have just taken Iraq’s oil after the 2003 invasion.  If nothing else, he said plainly what many Americans believed, and what various multinational oil companies were essentially seeking to do.

Consider here the plight of President Jimmy Carter.  Nearly 40 years ago, Carter urged Americans to scale back their appetites, start conserving energy, and free themselves from a crippling dependency on foreign oil and the unbridled consumption of material goods.  After critics termed it his “malaise” speech, Carter did an about-face, boosting military spending and establishing the Carter Doctrine to protect Persian Gulf oil as a vital U.S. national interest.  The American people responded by electing Ronald Reagan anyway.  As Americans continue to enjoy a consumption-driven lifestyle that gobbles up roughly 25% of the world’s production of fossil fuels (while representing only 3% of the world’s population), the smart money in the White House is working feverishly to open ever more fuel taps globally.  Trillions of dollars are at stake.

Small wonder that, on becoming president, Trump acted quickly to speed the building of new pipelines delayed or nixed by President Obama while ripping up environmental protections related to fossil fuel production.  Accelerated domestic production, along with cooperation from the Saudis — Trump’s recent Muslim bans carefully skipped targeting the one country that provided 15 of the 19 terrorists in the 9/11 attacks — should keep fuel flowing, profits growing, and world sea levels rising.

One data point here: The U.S. military alone guzzles more fossil fuel than the entire country of Sweden.  When it comes to energy consumption, our armed forces are truly second to none.

With its massive oil reserves, the Middle East remains a hotbed in the world’s ongoing resource wars, as well as its religious and ethnic conflicts, exacerbated by terrorism and the destabilizing attacks of the U.S. military.  Under the circumstances, when it comes to future global disaster, it’s not that hard to imagine that today’s Middle East could serve as the equivalent of the Balkans of World War I infamy.

If Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian “Black Hand” terrorist operating in a war-torn and much-disputed region, could set the world aflame in 1914, why not an ISIS terrorist just over a century later?  Consider the many fault lines today in that region and the forces involved, including Russia, Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, all ostensibly working together to combat terrorism even as they position themselves to maximize their own advantage and take down one another.  Under such circumstances, a political temblor followed by a geo-political earthquake seems unbearably possible.  And if not an ISIS temblor followed by major quake in the Middle East, there’s no shortage of other possible global fault lines in an increasingly edgy world — from saber-rattling contests with North Korea to jousting over Chinese-built artificial islands in the South China Sea.

As an historian, I’ve spent much time studying the twentieth-century German military.  In the years leading up to World War I, Germany was emerging as the superpower of its day, yet paradoxically it imagined itself as increasingly hemmed in by enemies, a nation surrounded and oppressed.  Its leaders especially feared a surging Russia.  This fear drove them to launch a preemptive war against that country.  (Admittedly, they attacked France first in 1914, but that’s another story.)  That incredibly risky and costly war, sparked in the Balkans, failed disastrously and yet it would only be repeated on an even more horrific level 25 years later.  The result: tens of millions of dead across the planet and a total defeat that finally put an end to German designs for global dominance.  The German military, praised as the “world’s best” by its leaders and sold to its people as a deterrent force, morphed during those two world wars into a doomsday machine that bled the country white, while ensuring the destruction of significant swaths of the planet.

Today, the U.S. military similarly praises itself as the “world’s best,” even as it imagines itself surrounded by powerful threats (China, Russia, a nuclear North Korea, and global terrorism, to start a list).  Sold to the American people during the Cold War as a deterrent force, a pillar of stability against communist domino-tippers, that military has by now morphed into a potential tipping force all its own.

Recall here that the Trump administration has reaffirmed America’s quest for overwhelming nuclear supremacy.  It has called for a “new approach” to North Korea and its nuclear weapons program.  (Whatever that may mean, it’s not a reference to diplomacy.) Even as nuclear buildups and brinksmanship loom, Washington continues to spread weaponry — it’s the greatest arms merchant of the twenty-first century by a wide mark — and chaos around the planet, spinning its efforts as a “war on terror” and selling them as the only way to “win.”

In May 1945, when the curtain fell on Germany’s last gasp for global dominance, the world was fortunately still innocent of nuclear weapons.  It’s different now.  Today’s planet is, if anything, over-endowed with potential doomsday machines — from those nukes to the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

That’s why it’s vitally important to recognize that President Trump’s “America-first” policies are anything but isolationist in the old twentieth century meaning of the term; that his talk of finally winning again is a recipe for prolonging wars guaranteed to create more chaos and more failed states in the Greater Middle East and possibly beyond; and that an already dangerous Cold War policy of “deterrence,” whether against conventional or nuclear attacks, may now have become a machine for perpetual war that could, given Trump’s bellicosity, explode into some version of doomsday.

Or, to put the matter another way, consider this question: Is North Korea’s Kim Jong-un the only unstable leader with unhinged nuclear ambitions currently at work on the world stage?

5 thoughts on “From Deterrence to Doomsday?

  1. “… consider this question: Is North Korea’s Kim Jong-un the only unstable leader with unhinged nuclear ambitions currently at work on the world stage?”

    Rather than assume the applicability of terms such as “only,” “unstable,” and “unhinged” with respect to the current North Korean leadership I would suggest reading not so much German history as Korean. For example:

    The Destruction and Reconstruction of North Korea, 1950 – 1960, by Charles Armstrong, The Asia-Pacific Journal, Volume 7, March 16, 2009.

    Something about walking a mile in the other man’s shoes…


    1. Yes, Mike, North Korea was devastated by bombing during the Korean War. And I don’t blame the North Koreans for wanting their own “deterrent” force. But I believe Kim Jong-un deserves the label of “unstable” (from what I’ve read about him, and from his public statements and decrees), and his recent threats and nuclear tests strike me as more than dangerous. That said, I consider Trump as well more than unstable, and his decrees about total nuclear supremacy as unhinged.


      1. “And the least stupid, fleeing the herd where fate has penned them fast, take refuge in the wards of opium, so much for what is news around the world.” — Charles Beaudelaire, Les Fleures du Mal (Flowers of Evil)

        “Washington’s quasi-official enemies list now consists mostly of pygmies: North Korea, a nation unable to feed its own population; Syria, an Israeli punching bag; Venezuela, governed by a clown; and, for old times’ sake, Cuba.” — Andrew Bacevich, Washington Rules

        It seems beyond pathetic that the mighty (in it’s own self-regard) U.S. military has to travel to the other side of the world in order to find a nation or two of impoverished pygmies with which to frighten its own taxpaying citizens out of whatever few dollars they still have left. Even worse, one would think that the U.S. military’s long record of losing to these terrifying pygmies — for over half a century now — would have convinced a modern country with an educated population to ditch such a bloated, inept, and ruinously expensive collection of professional parasites for a few state militias and a Coast Guard. But then, the adjectives “modern” and “educated” haven’t applied to America: the “Fate Driven Herd” (in Charles Beaudelaire’s exquisite choice of words) for many, many decades.

        As my Taiwanese wife likes to remind me whenever we hear once more of another U.S. President loudly threatening to “let skip the dogs of war” on some hapless, third world country:

        “Really mean dogs don’t bark.”

        So now we have U.S. President Donald Trump snarling and barking a Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, some Afghan farmers, and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Who looks like the opium addicted, poppy sniffing pygmy now?


      2. Surely one of the more remarkable triumphs of PR has been the glorification of the military and its weaponry. Those “beautiful” missiles (Brian Williams): It’s no different from Kim Jong-un launching parades to celebrate his missiles. In fact, there is a difference: We use our missiles to blast people, and so far the North Koreans haven’t.

        Even as Americans celebrate “their” military, they’ve insulated themselves from the murderous devastation of war. U.S. troops are everywhere globally, drone and missiles strikes occur with startling frequency, yet you’d never know it here in the Homeland.

        Bombs and missiles have become a leading U.S. export, and few in the Homeland seem to mind. Meanwhile, Trump and various other “defense” enthusiasts call for even more spending on the military, because the bigger we get, the less we’ll have to fight. Come again?


Comments are closed.