Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of Nato, was asked last week by the Guardian newspaper “whether he had known a more dangerous time in his 30-year career”. He replied, “It is more unpredictable, and it’s more difficult because we have so many challenges at the same time.
“We have proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in North Korea, we have terrorists, instability, and we have a more assertive Russia. It is a more dangerous world.”
The 30 year timespan excludes the peaks of the Cold War. For example, in October 1962 the United States and Russia came their closest ever to nuclear war over Cuba.
In October 1983 Russian leaders feared that the US was using the cover of a military exercise to mount a pre-emptive attack on them. They considered making their own first strike. Those were probably the most dangerous moments in the history of humankind.
Stoltenberg’s assessment of the present is a mixture of partial truth and self-interested falsehood. The Korean confrontation is genuinely scary. Until a few years ago the US had a monopoly of nuclear weapons in the Korean peninsula.
The North Korean leadership is quite explicit about the reason for challenging this monopoly. This has apparently taken them to the verge of developing a thermonuclear intercontinental ballistic missile.
Donald Trump has done a lot of sabre-rattling. But the US has no good military options. War with North Korea would at the minimum inflict terrible destruction on Seoul, capital of South Korea.
At the maximum it would lead to the world’s first nuclear exchange. No doubt North Korea would be destroyed in such a war. These horrific scenarios have restrained both sides.
But the interview with Stoltenberg is dominated by the joint military exercise that Russia and Belarus are mounting on their western borders. This is close to Nato member states such as the Baltic republics. He was visiting a British unit in Estonia—part of the Nato deployment of four battle groups in eastern Europe.
It’s quite typical of the West’s myopia about Russia that Stoltenberg complains about the Russian exercise, ignoring the fact that it is presumably in part a response to the Nato moves. These in turn followed Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014, and its continuing intervention in south-eastern Ukraine.
From a longer term point of view, the conflict is a consequence of the US decision, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to expand Nato close to Russia’s borders.
For Russian president Vladimir Putin, the Ukrainian decision to make an Association Agreement with the European Union would seriously advance the Western encirclement of Russia.
He has asserted Russian imperialism’s power in its “near abroad”. His behaviour is ugly and autocratic, but no worse than that of the US in the Middle East—and with a much lower body count.
In any case does Stoltenberg’s “more assertive Russia” bring nuclear war with the West any closer? It’s hard to see why it should. The basic calculus that war between the US and Russia would inflict unimaginable catastrophe on both sides restrained the antagonists during those Cold War crises. It continues to apply today.
Moreover, the protagonists in the Korean conflict are constrained by the appalling consequences of them fighting. But then there’s Donald Trump.
James Clapper, ex-US director of national intelligence, told CNN last month, “In a fit of pique he decides to do something about Kim Jong-un, there’s actually very little to stop him. There’s very little in the way of controls over exercising a nuclear option, which is pretty damn scary.”
But, as a loyal servant of the US, Stoltenberg doesn’t mention this. The rest of us must choose between trusting his generals to control Trump or getting rid of a system that gives individuals the power to destroy humankind.