No Escape from the Military Maze?


“The labyrinthine design ensures the unfamiliar are quickly lost…”––Charles Kenny, Close the Pentagon: Rethinking National Security for a Positive Sum World

“Between mouthfuls of wine the soldier keeps his eyes lowered on this disorderly network which becomes more complex every minute. He does not know what to say. … He does not know how to stop.”––Alain Robbe-Grillet, In The Labyrinth



In the happy event––for America and the world––of a Trump defeat in November, how fundamental a shift might we see in US foreign and defense policy? Last month, I noted the alacrity with which Democrats and Republicans, otherwise so bitterly divided, united to hurl obscene amounts of money at the Pentagon: nearly three quarters of a trillion dollars, more even––by $20 billion!––than that insatiable consumer of funds had requested.

True, attempts were made, by both doves and budget hawks, to cap or cut funding, and there was a broader sense that an era of massive annual increases may be ending. Applying the brakes, however, is not the same as changing direction, and would still leave America addicted to both stratospheric levels of military spending and to war itself.

Vintage DNC Donkey Pin

The 2020 Platform of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), adopted at the party’s virtual convention in August, seems to signal a decisive break with the “forever wars” of the post-9/11 era:

Democrats know it’s time to bring nearly two decades of unceasing conflict to an end. Our military engagements, which have spanned from West Africa to Southeast Asia, have cost more than $5 trillion and claimed more than half a million lives.

“Diplomacy,” the platform insists, “should be our tool of first resort,” and instead of treating “our diplomats with contempt”––and subjecting the State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to “reckless budget cuts”––a Biden administration would “ensure they are better prepared to advance American interests on the central issues of our time, like disruptive technology and climate change.” But if such issues are ‘central,’ why is the platform’s core vision still one of diplomacy backed by military might with “no peer,” the “most effective fighting force in the world?”

The platform talks glowingly of “building a force that can deter and win the conflicts of the 21st century,” and though it adds “we will use force only when necessary” and “always as a last resort,” that is the kind of boilerplate language used by both parties––and military leaders––for decades. The illegal and calamitous 2003 Iraq War, for example––so proudly supported by then-Senator Biden––was justified by both parties in precisely those terms. And after President Trump’s recent depiction of “top people in the Pentagon” as happy to “fight wars so all those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy,” the Chief of Staff of the Army, General James C. McConville, told a press briefing that “senior leaders would only recommend sending troops to combat when it’s required for national security and a last resort.” Good to know: but so, so often, the recommendation is ‘good to go’…


The Doomsday scenario––and potentially self-fulfilling prophecy––at the core of the Trump Administration’s National Security and Nuclear Posture Reviews is of major conflict, conventional and/or nuclear, between the United States and either Russia or China (hell, maybe both) in coming decades or a much nearer future. Would a Biden administration go there, too? Alarmingly, nowhere does the platform reject such a grim vision. And while it’s true such wars would be far from ‘endless’––likely to feature Mushroom Clouds before long––the platform’s pledge to end ‘forever wars’ is presumably intended to suggest something far more soothing. But what? Smaller-scale conflicts, presumably, unfair fights the US feels it can safely pick, control, and end at will? As in Afghanistan, Iraq…

Nor does the Platform re-affirm the ‘Geneva formula’ first adopted by a Republican president, Ronald Reagan, and his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, 35 years ago, that ‘a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.’ It does, though, go further than US nuclear policy ever has in declaring that “the sole purpose of our nuclear arsenal should be to deter––and, if necessary, retaliate against––a nuclear attack.” Most Americans probably assume this is nothing new, but when it comes to nuclear war, the US military has always been ‘in it to win it,’ and win it, ‘if need be,’ by starting it.

Ronald Reagan meets Mikhail Gorbachev, Geneva, 1985.

Ronald Reagan meets Mikhail Gorbachev, Geneva, 1985.

Even President Obama, who famously pledged in 2009 to “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” balked at declaring a ‘No First Use’ policy, while his 2010 Nuclear Posture Review referred murkily to “extreme circumstances” in which nuclear weapons could be used to “defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.” If these circumstances were limited to preventing nuclear attack, why not say so? Can Washington really be willing to kill millions––destroy cities in seconds––in response to non-nuclear attacks? According to US nuclear doctrine, from Truman to Trump, “Yes, We Can!”

And so can NATO, basing its first-strike posture on the viciously circular ‘logic’ that “as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.” In clear disregard of the spirit and sense of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), America currently ‘shares’ some of its nuclear bombs with the air forces of five ‘non-nuclear’ NATO states (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey). Thirty years after the ‘end’ of the Cold War––a botched epoch marred by NATO’s senseless expansion (contrary to its own promises) east––these misnamed ‘tactical’ weapons deter only Russian nuclear disarmament, rendering the platform’s pledge to “lower regional––and global––threats by reinforcing nuclear arms control” at odds with its uncritical embrace, two sentences earlier, of “America’s commitment to NATO.” Fortunately––stay tuned to this article––the nuclear status quo is now up for debate in many NATO states, if not yet the Democratic Party.



Matt Korda

Matt Korda

For an expert take on the platform, I turned to Matt Korda, research associate with the Nuclear Information Project of the Federation of American Scientists, and a founding member of Foreign Policy Generation, an impressive group of analyst-activists “old enough to remember the events of September 11, 2001, and the impact they had on US policy,” but “too young to have our voices heard in shaping those policies in the years that followed.”

Korda was a supporter of Bernie Sanders during the Democratic presidential primary, and I began our email exchange (LINK TO PDF) by noting that none of the six ‘unity task forces’ established by the Biden and ‘Bernie’ campaigns to prepare the platform encompassed defense or foreign policy. Although surprised and disappointed, “especially given all of the incredible groundwork that has been laid over the past few years to move US foreign policy in a more progressive direction,” Korda expressed confidence that if a “task force of this kind had been created, the subsequent recommendations would have been very positive,” perhaps including “more concrete commitments on cutting defense spending” and “a serious interrogation of longstanding US nuclear posture.” “And while there are certainly some things worth celebrating in the platform (for example, committing to ending the war in Yemen),” Korda conceded that “it seems this deliberate decision to not create a foreign policy task force is a signal that progressives will have a difficult time exerting influence over a Biden administration’s foreign policy.” Difficult, but not impossible:

However, I don’t think that the Democratic foreign policy establishment will be able to ignore progressive voices for much longer. Not only are voting Democrats well to the left of their elected politicians in Congress when it comes to foreign policy, but we are also seeing the rise and success of progressive candidates running on explicit anti-war platforms. A more restrained foreign policy is clearly a winning strategy, and it’s already mainstream thinking in the American public; now we just need our elected officials to catch up.

Much of our exchange revolved around what Korda called a “bizarre contradiction” in “both the platform as well as Beltway foreign policy thinking.” The party’s ‘national security’ establishment––dubbed ‘The Blob’ by progressives––has, Korda wrote, “accurately assessed that the American public is generally tired of endless wars,” yet “seems unwilling to imagine a vision of foreign policy that does not present the United States military as a force for good in the world.” The result is a nonsensical ‘common sense’ that “preaches an end to endless wars, while simultaneously making no actual commitment to reduce Pentagon spending or the global role of the US military.” Indeed, the “Biden team even admits that in some areas, military investment could actually increase,” suggesting that without “resolving these clear inconsistencies, it is difficult to expect much change in the overall direction of US foreign policy, even if Trump is voted out of office.”


I quoted the platform’s argument that “the implications of climate change for national security and the Department of Defense can no longer be an afterthought, but must be at the core of all policy and operational plans to secure our vital interests,” and asked “what is your understanding of what this actually means?” It could mean, for example, ‘greenwashing’ the War Machine, and/or preparing to fight and win conflicts generated by climate breakdown––a breakdown the ‘carbon footprint’ of modern militarism only exacerbates. Korda shared my skepticism, saying that:

[W]ith regards to phrases like this, I worry that foreign policy thinkers are learning the wrong lessons. The Pentagon is the single largest institutional emitter of fossil fuels on the planet, and therefore a sincere effort to combat climate change will necessarily require an element of demilitarization. Efforts to “greenify” the military are insufficient. Serious first steps towards demilitarization would include buying fewer weapons, closing superfluous overseas bases, bringing troops home and conducting fewer overseas missions or exercises. But these will be met with fierce resistance…

More fundamentally,” I argued, the platform fails to acknowledge “the intolerable threat to the global climate posed by nuclear war: by the weapons at the heart of US foreign and defense policy for the past 75 years.” Korda said he would absolutely agree that reframing nuclear policy as a climate justice issue is both accurate and “strategically prudent,” observing that not only have “several grassroots groups in the nuclear policy space been organizing on these grounds for many years,” but that “one can increasingly see that diplomats from non-nuclear-armed states are now prepared to consider nuclear disarmament as an environmental justice imperative, in addition to the more commonly-used framings of disarmament as humanitarian or security imperative.” “This certainly gives me hope,” he added––with a confidence I did not expect––“that as more and more international pressure builds to combat climate change, pressure will also expand to include considerations of demilitarization and disarmament.”


On nuclear policy, I asked if the implied logic of the platform position––‘we only have nukes to deter their use’––was the adoption of No-First-Use? While he was encouraged to see the platform explicitly state that the purpose of US nuclear weapons was for deterrence, and not for war-fighting,” Korda cautioned: “that doesn’t mean much if the US arsenal remains full of destabilizing weapons that are specifically designed for a nuclear first strike.” And he drew particular, chilling attention to America’s land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), whose “inherent vulnerability,” placed as they are “fixed silos” providing obvious targets, “creates a “‘use ‘em or lose ‘em’ situation, wherein the United States might actually be incentivized to shoot first during a crisis before its own missiles are destroyed.”

ICBM promotional materials, Lockheed Martin.

ICBM promotional materials, Lockheed Martin

ICBMs, he adds, are packaged with a uniquely short decision-making time––only a couple of minutes––wherein a single individual must decide whether to launch or not, with very little information at hand.” Compounding the folly, the entire ICBM force is scheduled to be replaced at the “exorbitant” cost of $100 billion, after the award of a “bizarre single-source contract,” and despite “widespread public disinterest in the program.” “As a result,” Korda reasoned:

[I]n a post-Cold War era – and in the midst of a pandemic, a recession, and an election – we should be seriously challenging conventional narratives about why these weapons are ‘necessary.’

Why is this not happening? Because ICBMs have friends in high places, “dozens of well-connected, corporate lobbyists paid handsomely to effectively suppress public and congressional debate about this issue,” so that “even commissioning something as basic as a feasibility study on life-extending the current ICBM force––rather rebuilding the whole force from scratch––is an uphill battle.” As, evidently, is something I naïvely assumed would be a ‘no-brainer’: a re-adoption of the ‘can’t win, won’t fight’ Geneva Formula. Korda, however, was saddened but not surprised by the “notable omission” of “this explicit formulation”:

It’s difficult to reconcile the Geneva Formula with the Pentagon’s own admission that nuclear weapons could be used to “create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability”––in other words, fighting and “winning” a nuclear war. The Pentagon is also conducting nuclear exercises to that effect as well. As long as the United States continues to be postured for nuclear war-fighting, it will be difficult to credibly adopt the Geneva Formula as a matter of US policy.

Yes, but isn’t the political point of the formula the leverage it can provide to those seeking policy changes? And would a ‘Biden Blob’ presidency really be so reactionary as to leave unaltered the insane Pentagon ‘admission’ he quotes? Yet, as noted above, through every Democratic presidency in the nuclear age the Pentagon has conducted such exercises and harbored such fantasies, and NATO too––though it lambasts Russia for daring to adopt such a policy – has long been committed to using the world’s worst weapons ‘creatively’: as battlefield ‘game changers’ and to gain strategic ‘advantage.’


My final question wondered how serious a discussion “of NATO nuclear policy there had been in the drafting of the platform.” Korda’s assumption was that it was “not considered in much depth,” but his hope was for a “revitalization of that conversation within the Alliance, especially in the context of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).”

The TPNW, known more simply as ‘the Ban Treaty’––a comprehensive prohibition comparable to the treaties already outlawing biological and chemical weapons––was adopted by almost two-thirds of UN members three years ago, and at the time of writing is five ratifications short of the 50 needed to ‘enter into force’ as binding international law. As Korda notes, “the populations of several NATO members––including all of the nuclear host countries––are at least highly sympathetic to it,” and it is “certainly possible that eventually the Treaty will pick up enough steam that many of these countries will be forced by their own voting publics to re-evaluate their involvement with NATO’s nuclear sharing.” “And so,” he concluded, “from an Alliance perspective, it would certainly be more prudent for NATO to begin these conversations now, before the issue is eventually forced upon them.”

I am happy to report that ‘eventually’ may already have arrived. A few days after our exchange––on September 21, surely not coincidentally UN International Day of Peace ––the NATO nuclear landscape was transformed by 56 signatures on an ‘Open Letter in Support of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons’ from former leaders and foreign and defense ministers of 20 non-nuclear NATO states, as well as Washington’s key ‘umbrella’ allies in Asia (Japan and South Korea), plus a former UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, and two former NATO Secretary-Generals. (There were seven Canadian signatories, all Liberals: former Prime Ministers John Turner––the letter was published two days after his death––and Jean Chrétien; former Foreign Ministers Lloyd Axworthy and John Manley; and former Defense Ministers Jean-Jacques Blais, Bill Graham and John McCallum.)

The coronavirus,” the letter opens, “has starkly demonstrated the urgent need for greater international cooperation to address all major threats to the health and welfare of humankind. Paramount among them is the threat of nuclear war.” Faced with this abyss, “an obvious starting point for the leaders of our own countries would be to declare without qualification that nuclear weapons serve no legitimate military or strategic purpose in light of the catastrophic human and environmental consequences of their use. In other words, our countries should reject any role for nuclear weapons in our defence.” Why haven’t they? The letter continues stingingly:

Rather than enabling progress towards a world free of nuclear weapons, we are impeding it and perpetuating nuclear dangers – all for fear of upsetting our allies who cling to these weapons of mass destruction. But friends can and must speak up when friends engage in reckless behaviour that puts their lives and ours in peril.

And here’s what these good friends have to say: “It is time to bring the era of reliance on nuclear weapons to a permanent end. In 2017, 122 countries took a courageous but long-overdue step in that direction by adopting [the Ban Treaty]… To date our countries have opted not to join the global majority… But our leaders should reconsider their positions. We cannot afford to dither in the face of this existential threat to humanity.” Because “there is no cure for a nuclear war” and “prevention is our only option,”  “we must show courage and boldness – and join the treaty.”

Now that’s a platform on which to stand.

NOTE: Read Sean Howard’s full interview with Matt Korda here.

Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton and the Canadian Pugwash Group. He may be reached here.