Meet Xkqfbl. He is a Martian. He can pronounce his name, but we can’t. So we’ll call him “Marty.”
Marty is very interested in us earthlings. Moreover, his interest is entirely benevolent. Because he cannot live on our planet — our gravity and atmosphere forbid it — and because he has no use for our natural resources, Marty has no economic motives regarding our planet or its inhabitants.
Nonetheless, Marty is very concerned for our welfare. He affirms, with the founders of our republic, that all humans are endowed with equal rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This includes Moslems and Russians as well as Americans. He would like all human beings to be as happy and prosperous as possible, and he grieves at our failure to achieve this utopia.
Marty understand us. Throughout a lifetime of thousands of our earth-years, he has studied human history and human psychology. He is fully aware that thrice in the past two centuries, armies from western Europe have marched across Russia’s western border – most recently, at the cost of twenty-five million Soviet citizens, or one sixth of the population. Accordingly, he understands (as apparently American leaders and journalists do not) why Russian citizens and the Russian government are alarmed when NATO, a military alliance, conducts military exercises alongside that western border.
Marty is also quite aware that Americans and Russians have radically different attitudes toward war. To most Russians, war is an unspeakable horror, fought on their native soil. To the Americans, war is a glorious adventure as depicted in movies and TV, fought somewhere “over there.” The fortunate Americans have not suffered a war within their borders since the Civil War, a century and a half ago.
Marty, who loves all earthlings equally, is deeply saddened by the resumption of the cold war between the United States and NATO, on one side, and Russia on the other. He understands that in the United States, this new cold war is very beneficial to the profits of the defense industries, to the careers of politicians and military officers, and to the circulation of the corporate media. But for the ordinary American citizens, and for the future of the political economies of the opposing nations, the cold war is a disaster. In the name of “national defense:”
- Domestic economies are starved. Physical infrastructure – roads, bridges, water and power supplies – crumble into disrepair. Public school budgets are cut, and higher education becomes unaffordable.
- Civil liberties and constitutional rights are set aside. Among them, Fourth Amendment restrictions on search and seizure, Fifth Amendment right to a fair trial and against imprisonment without charge. International laws against torture and wars of aggression are violated.
- With full media and legislative attention drawn to the threat from “foreign enemies,” coordinated multi-national responses to genuine global emergencies such as climate change and terrorism become impossible.
- Above all, as the hostility between the rivals intensifies, so too does the threat of nuclear war. Both sides are fully aware that a deliberate, full-scale nuclear attack – a “nuclear Pearl Harbor” – is highly unlikely, since the retaliation from such an attack would result in the total annihilation of the aggressor. Far more likely would be a nuclear war by uncontrolled escalation, derangement or accident — for example the misinterpretation of a radar signal or a computer malfunction. There were many such “close calls” during the first cold war, as identified here and here.
In the language of game theory, from the point of view of the military-industrial-media complex, the new Cold War is a plus-sum contest – inflated budgets, career advancement, advertising revenues. From the point of view of strategic planners, it is zero-sum: “if we win, they lose, and if we lose, they win.” From the point of view of humanity in general – and of Marty, the wise and benevolent Martian – the Cold War is minus-sum, threatening infinite loss: total nuclear annihilation.
THE MORAL POINT OF VIEW
And now, to the essential point of this fable: one need not be a Martian to assume Marty’s point of view.
The concept of the perspective of the unbiased, informed and benevolent observer has many names, and is prominent in the history of moral and political philosophy: “the impartial spectator” (Adam Smith), “the ideal observer” (John Stuart Mill), “the general will” (Rousseau), “the view from nowhere” (Thomas Nagel), “the original position” (John Rawls). My preferred term, in common usage among moral philosophers, is “the moral point of view.”
The moral point of view is not restricted to philosophers. It is commonly applied by ecologists: “the ecolate view” (Garret Hardin) and “thinking like a mountain” (Aldo Leopold). It is the approach of successful marriage counselors and diplomatic negotiators, and it is implicit in the golden rule which is found in all the great world religions.
Numerous moral, political and economic puzzles, unsolvable from the orthodox economic point of view of the self-serving “utility maximizing” individual or nation, are readily solvable from the moral point of view. Among these puzzles are the tragedy of the commons, the prisoners’ dilemma, the Hobbesian state of nature, and market failure (“negative externalities”). (For an elaboration, see my “The Moral Point of View”).
Perhaps the dangerous new cold war between Russia and the United States/NATO might also be disengaged through negotiation from the moral point of view. We will explore this possibility shortly.
To be sure, some international conflicts are not negotiable: not if one of the contesting powers has no use for compromise and is dead-set upon conquest and mayhem, whatever the cost. Clearly, Napoleon and Hitler are cases in point. The western neo-cons and much of the corporate American media would have us believe that Vladimir Putin belongs to this category. Even Hillary Clinton has compared Vladimir Putin to Hitler. It’s that serious.
Quite frankly, I am not persuaded that Putin is another Hitler. This dire accusation requires evidence, and I find little evidence to support it. Absent such evidence, perhaps the moral point of view is worth a try.
My hypothetical critic responds: “What are you, some kind of traitor? Who’s side are you on? The side of America and its allies, or the side of the Putin and the Russians?”
My reply: I reject this zero-sum paradigm. In other words, like Marty the saintly Martian, I am on the “side” of humanity, which encompasses both American and Russian interests. The single-minded determination of each side to prevail over the other is a dead-end path, threatening ruin for all at the end of that path.
Both “sides” of the new cold war share common interests, and it is these common interests that must capture our attention if we are to escape from the trap of the zero-sum perspective on the new cold war
Negotiation requires concessions, and if the revived cold war is to be peacefully resolved, there will be costs to both sides. Among these costs: senior military officers must sacrifice their promotions, and media empires must find other means to maintain their audiences. And the mighty military-industrial complex might have to devote its formidable engineering talents to other urgent tasks, such as high-speed railroads, carbon capture and green energy.
These costs will be trivial compared to the enormous benefits of ending the cold war.
TIT FOR TAT: THE BENIGN CIRCLE.
An arms race is typically and correctly described as a “vicious circle.” One side introduces an advanced weapons system, and the other responds and raises the ante with a breakthrough of its own. A provocation elicits a response which in turn brings on a counter-response. Military budgets soar, each side citing the “threat” allegedly posed by the other as justification for further escalations , while domestic priorities are neglected. As the late economist, Kenneth Boulding put it, in the first Cold War, the American and Soviet military establishments were, in effect, symbiotic allies at war with their respective civilian economies.
Thus the escalation continues until war breaks out; more likely than not, due to accident, blunder or miscalculation. The first Cold War ended peacefully, at least for a brief historical moment. There is little reason to assume that we will all be as fortunate with this renewed Cold War.
Though little noticed by our politicians and media, there is positive polar-opposite to a “vicious circle:” a “benign circle,” which we might call “tit-for-tat de-escalation.” It could be a path out of the deadly Cold War trap now threatening the peace of the world. It could be, but for the venomous propaganda on both sides which make peaceful resolution ever more difficult. Witness that scorn heaped upon Donald Trump and his defenders, as they even dare suggest that we might “get along” with the Russians. (I’ll have more to say about this in my next essay, “Vladimir Putin as Emmanuel Goldstein.” Those familiar with George Orwell’s 1984 will understand the reference).
“Tit for tat” is the name given to “benign-circle conflict resolution” by Robert Axelrod, in his book The Evolution of Cooperation (Basic books, 1984). Following an extensive investigation, featuring computer simulations, Axelrod concluded that the most effective method of conflict resolution is through reciprocating “good faith” concessions. The process continues until one side “defects” (i.e., does not respond, or still worse, takes advantage of the other side’s concession). The process can survive occasional defections, but if they become numerous, then, as one side realizes that it is being “suckered,” it withdraws and the negotiation ends.
Could the US/NATO alliance and the Russian Federation arrive at a peaceful conflict resolution through “tit for tat” negotiation? Possibly. But only if it begins in secret. The poisonous propaganda heard on both sides makes open and public negotiation impossible. During the first Cold War, we often heard that “if you yield an inch to the Soviets, they will try to take a mile.” With such an attitude, de-escalation is doomed at the start.
THE ROAD BACK FROM THE BRINK:
The negotiations begin, as they must, with a recognition of common interests.
There are, I believe, three dominating concerns shared by the East and the West: climate change, nuclear war, and Islamic terrorism. If these can be recognized and dealt with through cooperative action by both sides, the issues that divide us will be significantly diminished.
I will not elaborate on the threats of climate change and Islamic terrorism, having done so elsewhere. (Islamic terrorism here: climate change here, here and here). In any case, these common threats are obvious to most informed citizens. The threat of nuclear war, however, deserves some elaboration.
In the minds of most American citizens, the greatest threat is a “nuclear Pearl Harbor:” a planned, coordinated and massive “first strike..” This is the view promoted by the military-industrial complex and the corporate media. It is this view that justifies the production and deployment of more than 7,000 nuclear weapons, along with the multi-trillion dollar investment in the so-called “nuclear triad” – ICBMs, aircraft, and submarines.
In fact, as noted above, a “nuclear Pearl Harbor” is very unlikely, due to “MAD” – the mutually assured destruction that would follow a first strike. Both sides are fully aware that a first strike would in effect, be suicidal.
The far greater threat is an unintended global nuclear war resulting from uncontrolled escalation (the World War I/Sarajevo scenario), computer malfunction (the “War Games” scenario), derangement (the “Dr. Strangelove” Scenario). This is not idle speculation: history confirms this threat. In 1962, the dissent of one Soviet naval officer, Vasili Arkhapov, prevented the launch of a nuclear armed torpedo in the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1983, another Soviet officer, Stanislav Petrov, in defiance of standing orders, delayed notification of a US missile strike. The “missile attack” turned out to be a rogue reflection of sunlight in the lens of a surveillance satellite. Unarmed hydrogen bombs fell from American bombers on South Carolina and off the coast of Spain. As noted above, there were many more such “near nuclear misses” on both sides.
There is a strange and deadly paradox involved in the strategic prioritization of deterrence (MAD) over prevention of unintended war. The more deployed weapons, the greater the deterrence, although one might imagine that a few hundred warheads, rather than thousands, would suffice. At the same time, the more warheads, the greater the chance that one of those warheads might accidentally initiate a holocaust. (I explore this paradox in greater detail here).
Back to our secret de-escalation conference:
Assuming both sides agree regarding the primary threats to both sides – climate, nuclear war, and terrorism – and assuming that they agree to adopt a “benign circle” (“tit for tat”) strategy, how might they proceed.
Perhaps the first order of business might be to ease the tension along the western border of Russia.
And excellent first step might be the removal of the NATO missile sites in Poland and Romania. The NATO justification of these sites, defense against a missile attach from Iran, is absurd on its face. No one believes this, since Iran has no long-range missiles, and furthermore, thanks to the recent negotiated agreement, no prospect of developing nuclear weapons. So the removal of these missile sites should be an easy step.
Russia might respond by agreeing to withdraw its regular army units 200 kilometers east of its western border – especially its border with Ukraine and the Baltic states. Unlike the early Cold War, with the U-2 overflights over the Soviet Union, with today’s satellite technology, verification would be simple and reliable. (Have you used Google World recently?).
This might be followed in turn by a comparable withdrawal of NATO troops, and a cessation of military exercises, near the Russian border.
But what about Crimea, which has provoked the West’s economic sanctions against Russia? Should not Russia return Crimea to Ukraine? On its face, it seems to be an obvious move. On closer inspection, not at all obvious. A simple return of the annexed territory to Ukraine might be a bridge too far. Russian public opinion would not tolerate this. But the largest obstacle, perhaps, would be the Crimeans, who, it seems, overwhelmingly prefer to be a part of Russia rather than Ukraine. Shouldn’t they have a say in the matter?
Solution? Possibly a validation of the Crimeans’ preference with another referendum, this time monitored by the United Nations. If, as expected, Crimeans once again opt to join Russia, then Russia should be prepared to compensate Ukraine for its loss of this valuable territory.
Next, the Russians should pledge never to annex the Russian-speaking eastern provinces of Ukraine, as the West agrees in return not to extend NATO membership to Ukraine. Then Ukraine, for its part, should agree to adopt a federation, with semi-autonomous Russian and Ukrainian regions. A bi-lingual nation? Why not? It works quite well in Belgium and Canada.
With an easing of military tensions, the time would then be ripe to reinstate educational, cultural and scientific exchanges. Russian scientists and technologists might then join a coordinated global effort to halt and possibly reverse climate change. Nuclear stockpiles would then be radically reduced, as they were at the end of the first cold war, and removed from “launch on warning” status. Russian, American, European and, yes, some Islamic countries, might unite in a joint campaign against terrorism.
“Impossible!” say the neo-cons. “Naive and dangerous!” “Start making concessions the Russians, and they will only demand more, with no reciprocating concessions on their part. You just can’t trust those conniving Russians.!
Perhaps. And if so, then we will find out soon enough, and the New Cold War will be on again, whereupon we all may be on the road to Armageddon.
On the other hand, a “benign circle” of accommodation might lead to a new era of peace, prosperity and partnership.
If the tit-for-tat experiment fails, what do we lose? A few useless missile bases in eastern Europe? A strategically deployed military? The withdrawn NATO military units can be readily returned along the Russian border. Small costs compared to the enormous advantages of peaceful coexistence and partnership that will follow successful negotiations.
In sum, little to lose and much to gain – a gamble well worth taking. Russians win. Americans win. The world at large wins.
From his moral point of view on Mars, Marty would be pleased.
And you should be too.
“All I am saying, is give peace a chance.”