Trump could revive the Cold War, but China has the power to change the dynamics of it

The Trump administration sees Russia and China as “revisionist powers” and “strategic competitors” of the US, but when it comes to countering their nuclear advances and innovative use of cyber-conflict, Trump’s long-term strategy remains a mystery

Wednesday 24 October 2018 02:45
An American flag is flown next to the Chinese national emblem
An American flag is flown next to the Chinese national emblem

ver the past few days the shape of what many in Europe and the United States call a new Cold War has begun to emerge — with threats and nuclear weapons that resemble the old one, punctuated by new dynamics, in part because of the rise of a rich, expanding and Nationalist China.

The change was evident as President Donald Trump explained his decision to abandon a 31-year-old arms-control treaty with Russia — hinting he was ready to plunge into a new arms race with both Moscow and Beijing, and as the Justice Department filed charges, for the third time this year, against Russians accused of interfering in U.S. elections.

Past attempts to embarrass President Vladimir Putin into changing his behaviour, in both the nuclear and cyber-conflict arenas, have failed. During the Obama administration, the exposure of Russia’s violations of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2014 did nothing to alter Moscow’s arms buildup. Nor did the decision to name Putin as the man behind the 2016 attack on the Democratic National Committee and the widespread use of social media to widen fissures in U.S. politics. There is little evidence that the indictment of the Internet Research Agency and members of Putin’s military intelligence have deterred the Russians.

But in both cases China is also lurking in the background, a powerful force in a way it never was in the first Cold War, which began just as Mao declared the creation of the People’s Republic. And while China appears to be the reason for Trump’s decision to pull out of the missile treaty with Russia, it is causing new anxieties in a Europe already mistrustful of Trump’s “America First” foreign and trade policies.

Trump argued correctly that the arms treaty, signed in 1987 by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev, left China free to build up its own nuclear and conventional missiles of all ranges. (China was never part of the negotiations, and never a signatory to the treaty.) And perhaps as part of his effort to deflect discussion of whether Russia succeeded in manipulating the 2016 election, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have accused China of meddling, too — seeking to shape American public opinion more through investment, trade and theft of intellectual property than covert cyber-manipulation.

The Trump administration identifies both Russia and China as “revisionist powers” and “strategic competitors” of the United States. But when it comes to countering their nuclear advances and their increasingly innovative use of cyber-conflict to outmanoeuvre their adversaries, Trump’s long-term strategy remains a mystery — beyond promises to match every military buildup, and strike back hard.

Whether it was real or a negotiating ploy, Trump’s declaration Saturday that he was ready, if necessary, to plunge the world back into a 1950’s-style arms race is bound to cause yet another rift between Washington and its European allies — exactly the kind of fracture inside NATO that Putin has tried to create.

And in cybersecurity, Trump has veered from denying Russian activity to authorizing the newly created U.S. Cyber Command more latitude to conduct pre-emptive strikes without presidential authorization. That raises fears of escalation with no clear reason to believe that the United States, its sprawling networks still vulnerable, would come out on top.

The Europeans do not deny that Russia has violated the INF treaty, which Kevin Ryan, an expert on Russian arms at the Belfer Center at Harvard, noted recently was “negotiated at a time that was equally, if not more, contentious.” At the time, hundreds of thousands of Europeans demonstrated against the deployment of U.S. Pershing II intermediate-range missiles on their soil as a counterbalance to Soviet SS-20s. That deployment led to the INF treaty Trump now wants to dump.

Most European leaders — especially the Germans — believe other weapons systems deter the Russians, including air- and ground-launched missiles. For them, Trump’s decision to abandon one of the few remaining treaties controlling nuclear weapons fits a narrative of “America First” at the expense of existing, long-term alliances, like NATO — and is the latest in a series of abandoned agreements, from the Paris accord on climate to the Iranian nuclear deal.

In this case, they see few advantages from leaving the treaty. Carl Bildt, a former Swedish prime minister, called the move “a gift to Russia that exposes Europe to a growing nuclear threat,” because as the United States enters an arms race, “Russia can quickly deploy new weapons in numbers.”

The German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, called the decision regrettable, noting that it “poses difficult questions for us and for Europe” since it is the Europeans who are in range of the Russian missiles, not the United States.

Gorbachev, unsurprisingly, decried the Trump decision as reckless, asking: “Do they really not understand in Washington what this can lead to?”

Moreover, the Europeans believe Trump’s strategy — praising Putin when the two appear together as they did in Helsinki, then letting his aides step up pressure — is, if anything, emboldening the Russian leader. They were stunned to see Russia send a hit squad to Britain to try to kill a former Russian intelligence officer, Sergei V. Skripal, despite having exchanged him in a spy-swap years before. And Russia continues to freely meddle in European politics, most recently trying to block the accession of Macedonia to both NATO and the European Union.

But the European reaction has been disorganized. While NATO countries have put more troops in Baltic nations and Poland, and are preparing a huge military exercise in the North Atlantic, there is no agreed-on strategy over what red lines should be set to respond to Russian activity. Nowhere is that clearer than in the realm of cyberwarfare, where Europeans are spending more money on collective defense, but NATO has no offensive capability and no agreement about what kind of interference by the Russians calls for a response.

For his part, Putin has calibrated his actions with care. He denies that the Russian deployment of what the West calls an SSC-8 missile violates the treaty. And he has accused the United States — long before Trump was elected — of violating the treaty itself, arguing that anti-missile batteries it has placed in Europe could be used to fire other missiles that violate the ban on weapons that can reach 300 to 3,500 miles.

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If the breach with Russia opens, it will most likely rekindle the Europeans’ fear that their territory would be the battlefield for the superpowers.

“I am deeply worried,” Wolfgang Ischinger, the former German ambassador to the United States, said on Sunday. He urged Washington instead to try to expand the treaty, by bringing in China. “No way European allies like Germany could live through another I.N.F.” deployment, he wrote on Twitter, “a la 1980s: that road is closed.”

Trump himself seemed to open up that possibility on Saturday. “If they get smart and if others get smart and they say, ‘Let’s not develop these horrible nuclear weapons,’ I would be extremely happy with that. But as long as somebody is violating that agreement, we’re not going to be the only one to adhere to it,” he said.

But missile treaties are not like NAFTA, the trade agreement Trump criticised and then renegotiated with Mexico and Canada.

Putin has little incentive to negotiate a new INF treaty; his intermediate-range missiles fit a strategy of disruption. The Chinese have even less incentive to join any talks: Most of their missiles, nuclear and non-nuclear, fall within the range of weapons prohibited by the treaty. They would be giving up one of their primary tools for keeping the United States at a distance in the Pacific. And the Americans, the Chinese point out, have missiles of the same range at sea and on aircraft, which are permitted by the treaty.

Trump’s strategy is even harder to discern in the cyberattacks. While the Justice Department has indicted Russians working for the Internet Research Agency, officers of the intelligence organisation formerly known as the GRU, and now an “accountant” charged with aiding influence campaigns with millions of dollars, none is known to be in custody. (The United States will not describe the whereabouts of the accountant.)

The newly elevated U.S. Cyber Command has put together a team to counter election interference, but said little about its tactics. Fighting disinformation is especially hard: Cyber-command officials say they are far more comfortable turning off Iranian centrifuges or sabotaging North Korean missiles than they are waging counter-information wars.

While Trump can build missiles to match the Chinese or Russian arsenals, there is no simple way to match Russian or Chinese influence operations.

For the Trump administration, it is like the early 1950s all over again, said one of the president’s top advisers, as a new threat emerged and Washington argued over how, or if, to counter it. But this time Washington does not seem to be consulting its allies.

The New York Times

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