This month is the eighty-first anniversary of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, which triggered America’s entry into World War II. Such events are not top of mind for most Americans. We seem exhausted after two decades of the global war on terror. As someone who came of age during the Cold War, I find myself asking “when did World War III become so boring to everyone?”
Elon Musk and Twitter, the Dobbs decision, inflation, immigration—those are among the topics that are top of mind for citizens in the United States. Despite the war in Ukraine and President Joe Biden terming the 2020s “the decisive decade”, there is a decided lack of interest in today’s momentous shifts in global affairs—shifts that could affect Americans profoundly if they result in war.
Indeed, if the United States introduced its first new nuclear bomber in decades, would anyone notice? Oh, wait, the Air Force did just that by rolling out the B-21on December 2nd and the event was met with a collective yawn by the national news media. Bomber, schmomber—who cares? Time was that the introduction of a new strategic bomber would have generated debate, praise, derision, and many other reactions, but it would have caused some impassioned responses! Apparently, contemplating nuclear Armageddon and its means of delivery is so, well, Cold War. The 1980s called and they want their foreign policy back!
The trouble is that the prospect for a major war is not as remote as most Americans seem to think. The idea that it is a distant possibility is not healthy for our politics or for our military readiness. This mindset also colors the popular view of the war in Ukraine. To the extent that people think about the conflict, it seems to be reduced to “Putin bad, Ukraine good”. This simple-minded approach can lead people to ignore the risk escalation in Ukraine poses to the United States.
What are the potential consequences when Ukraine attacks Russian airbases deep in Russia? The Ukrainian impulse for such strikes is understandable. After all, Russian bombers from those bases are launching missiles on Ukrainian infrastructure with devastating effect. Got it. But how will Moscow react to attacks so deep into the Russian heartland? Secretary of State Blinken has stated that those Ukrainian strikes were conducted without U.S. knowledge or support. Okay, but I don’t find Blinken’s statement reassuring. In fact, I find it alarming that we have so little say-so over whether Ukraine expands the war into Russia.
There are calls for Ukraine to reclaim all territory taken by Russia since 2014, including Crimea. The Kremlin probably doesn’t consider lost territory in Donbas to be an existential threat to the Russian regime, but Crimea? It’s the base of operations for the Russian Black Sea Fleet and has been since the days of Catherine the Great. The loss of other Ukrainian territory may not be a reason for Putin to escalate the conflict, but Crimea? The Crimean Peninsula holds a special place in the hearts of all Russian imperialists, including Vladimir Putin.
The world has heard the Kremlin’s unsubtle threats about the use of nuclear force. In fact, Putin, who has behaved rather cautiously during the war in Ukraine, has additional steps on the escalatory ladder short of nuclear weapons, including chemical weapons. More importantly, Russia could escalate its cyber-attacks and employ focused strikes on Western space assets, which, after all, are aiding Ukraine directly in its war effort. Would such escalatory measures mean a general conventional war?
Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party is watching developments in Ukraine closely. What lessons is it learning that it will apply to Taiwan? This year, Beijing has been vigorous in its denunciations of American Congressional visits to Taiwan and President Biden’s apparently off the cuff remarks about the United States military having an obligation to defend Taiwan in the event of Chinese action. Most observers believe that a war over Taiwan would be difficult to contain and that it would present huge risks of escalating into World War III. Given the risks, should our policy toward Taiwan be less ambiguous or not?
And what of Beijing’s new nuclear policy? Under President Xi, the Chinese have departed from their decades-long strategy of nuclear sufficiency and are embarked on a massive build up of nuclear forces, unconstrained by any treaty considerations. It will surely have them reach nuclear parity with the United States and Russia in the coming years. For the first time in history, the United States and our allies will be confronted with a tri-polar nuclear world. What will this unprecedented situation mean for our nuclear force structure? Shouldn’t this be the subject of a national debate? Oh, right, almost no one noticed the rollout of the B-21, so why should we worry about what the Chinese are doing.
How would the United States deal with a new ‘Pearl Harbor’ moment? It may not be a direct attack on United States’ soil, but we could experience something every bit as calamitous in Ukraine or Taiwan. Are the American people prepared for such a moment? I don’t think so.
Deterring World War III ought to be a topic on the national agenda. The fact that it isn’t is a sign of many things—an unserious political discourse for one. Why is the American public letting its political leadership off the hook from addressing major shifts in geo-politics? There is no serious discussion in Washington about:
- The lack of a strategy for peace in Ukraine
- The tectonic shifts in the European order brought on by a revanchist Russia
- China’s drive to fundamentally upset the tenuous global nuclear balance
- Nuclear proliferation in South Asia, North Korea, and elsewhere
Will we have a meaningful discussion on those and other critical issues in the upcoming 2024 political campaign. We need one, but I won’t hold my breath!