The War Trap

Today, twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and nineteen years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the military budget of the United States is larger than at any time during the Cold War and roughly equal to the total of all other military budgets throughout the world.

Why, in the midst of the greatest economic emergency in seventy years, with the public sector of the U.S. economy starved for funds required for economic recovery, and with urgent global climate and energy crises directly before us, have we failed to benefit from a “peace dividend” from the end of the Cold War? Why are we instead engaged in two wars in nations that pose no threat to us?

It appears that Einstein was right: everything has changed except our modes of thinking, and thus, as he warned, “we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

The good news is that we have the means to avoid catastrophe. The far worse news is that there is little evidence that the political and economic structures in place will allow us to escape that catastrophe


Last September, President Obama announced that the United States was cancelling plans to establish a ballistic missile defense system (BMD) in Poland and the Czech Republic. This decision, which appalled Republicans and neo-cons in the U.S., along with many Czech and Polish politicians, delighted peace activists both in the U. S. and throughout the world.

Also delighted were the Russians, who had regarded the missile defense shield, first proposed by George Bush (the lesser), as a provocation, aimed at neutralizing the Russian strategic missile capability. The Russians were unconvinced by Bush’s assurance that the BMD was designed as a defense against a missile attack from Iran, a skepticism that was shared by many American critics.

Obama’s decision to cancel the BMD was shortly followed by a Russian announcement that it would not deploy missiles in the Baltic city of Kaliningrad, along with an indication that this decision was in response to Obama’s announcement regarding the bases in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Thus began the first two moves of a de-escalation strategy known to game-theorists and political scientists as “Tit for Tat,” whereby an initiation of a conciliatory act is responded to in kind, and so on reciprocally, until one player elects to take advantage of the cooperating opponent (i.e., “defects”).

This particular game came to an abrupt halt the following month when Vice President Biden, in a visit to the Czech Republic, assured the Czech President that the U.S. would, after all, install a “modified” missile defense shield.

One can only speculate as to what might have happened had the American/Russian Tit For Tat game continued. Following the Kaliningrad announcement, it was Obama’s “turn.” Instead of reneging on the original BMD decision, Obama might have announced that ICBMs would henceforth be equipped with in-flight “abort” mechanisms, to minimize the chance of an accidental nuclear war (which, as I have argued elsewhere, is the most likely cause of a global thermonuclear catastrophe).

Russia’s turn? Presumably the same. Then, to “up the ante,” perhaps an agreement to cooperate with the U.S. and NATO in their opposition the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

And so on. The opportunities and options for reciprocating “Tit For Tat” cooperation and de-escalation are endless.

So why haven’t these opportunities been pursued and accomplished? The question encompasses nothing less than the history of the Cold War and the enormously complicated theories and ideologies of international diplomacy. However, I have a simple suggestion: there is too much wealth and power invested in diplomatic “business as usual” to allow significant change.


Great power rivalries have often been described as “prisoner’s dilemmas” – a thought experiment also familiar to game theorists and political scientists. This is the paradigm example:

Two conspiring prisoners are separately brought before a judge, who presents each prisoner with this proposal: “If you confess and implicate your accomplice and he remains silent, I will sentence him to ten years and release you. If you both confess, I will sentence each of you to five years. And if you both remain silent, I will sentence each of you to one year.”

If you reflect on this “deal,” you will find some fascinating implications, both moral and practical. First of all, “the best is the enemy of the good”; the more each prisoner is inclined to achieve the best outcome for himself, the less likely he is to get it. Second, the best outcome for both (both silent, a year each) is not the best outcome for each (release). Third, the more each prisoner trusts the other the more likely the best outcome for both (i.e., both silent). (I examine The Prisoner’s Dilemma in more detail here).

The Prisoner’s dilemma is much more than an idle thought-experiment. You can see it in action almost every week on TV in “Law and Order” or other such crime dramas. It’s called “plea bargaining.” We all know the script: “here’s the deal – you give up the other guy and we’ll go easy on you. Your buddy is in the other room right now, and the first to cooperate gets the deal. Your time is running out.”

This is how the prisoner’s dilemma might apply to an arms race: During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union each had a choice: to arm or to disarm. Disarming, while the other did not, invited attack and/or economic and political defeat (loss of global dominance). Mutual disarmament allowed national resources to be invested in the domestic economies. Mutual arming – i.e., the arms race – resulted in the impoverishment of both economies and a constant “hair-trigger” danger of a catastrophic thermonuclear exchange.

As we all know, it was the last option that was followed by the great powers until, with the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev, glasnost and perestroika, the Soviet Union unilaterally disarmed. To the amazement of the Cold Warriors on both sides, this did not, as feared, result in an attack by the U.S. and NATO nor the defeat of Russia, though it did accompany the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Today, a pale vestige of the Cold War remains, as both the United States and Russia still have strategic nuclear missiles armed and ready and, as the dispute over the Czech and Polish BMD sites testify, each side is suspicious of the intentions of the other. Both sides face severe economic crises, and thus have much to gain by disarming and directing their national resources to dealing with domestic issues. There is much more cooperation and trust today between the United States and Russia than there was during the Cold War. Accordingly, the time is right, at long last, to prevent the outbreak of a new Cold War and to secure a lasting peace between the United States and Russia.

So why was Joe Biden dispatched to Prague to put an end to the developing “benign circle” of Tit For Tat mutual de-escalation?

That question is a small piece of a much larger question: Why does the United States government find it necessary to spend close to a trillion dollars on “national defense” – roughly equal to the military budgets of all other nations combined – while this nation is in the midst of the greatest economic crisis in seventy years, and as the entire planet faces the catastrophic consequences of climate change and end of abundant fossil energy sources? We are told that we are engaged in a “war on terror” against a band of outlaws, hiding in caves and remote tribal villages. Why, then, do we build multi-billion dollar nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers to use against an “enemy” without a navy, and build fighters and bombers to use against an “enemy” without an air force?


In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

— Dwight D. Eisenhower

The answer is compelling: Obama and Biden chose not to play Tit For Tat with the Russians, simply because “the powers that be” in Washington, Wall Street, and the Military-Industrial Complex do not desire a de-escalation, and furthermore would be rather pleased to see a resumption of the Cold War.

I understand that this sounds unspeakably paranoid. But consider the stakes involved. In January, 2002, the Pentagon auditors admitted that some 2.3 trillion dollars of defense budgets were “unaccounted for.” That’s “trillion” with a “T” – 2.3 million times a million. Now where do you suppose all those trillions went? And as we are well aware, billions upon billions of public money is going into the private hands of the “contractors” in Iraq and Afghanistan. But for Iraq, Halliburton, Inc., now awash in public cash, would be bankrupt due to the mismanagement of its former CEO, one Richard Cheney. And Cheney is by no means the only beneficiary of Pentagon largesse. In short, enormous fortunes and thousands of careers, both military and industrial, depend upon a continuation of strategic business as usual.

Now of course, nobody wants a nuclear war. But face it, the threat of nuclear war, or of nuclear terrorism, is a gift to the military industrial complex that keeps on giving. No threat, no fear – no appropriations.

As the late economist, Kenneth Boulding, commented to me some twenty-five years ago, “the American and Soviet military establishments are symbiotic allies ‘at war’ with their own domestic economies.”

Not only does a hypertrophic military suck the lifeblood out of our domestic economy, still worse it succumbs to Maslow’s rule: “to a carpenter, all problems can be solved with a hammer.” Madeleine Albright admitted as much when she said to Colin Powell, “what’s the point of [having] this superb military … if we can’t use it?” (Albright, Madam Secretary, p. 182) Diplomacy? Negotiations? International law? Treaties? The United Nations? Fagetaboutit! Send the Marines!

Face it, if there were no “enemy” to keep the military-industrial complex humming along would it not be necessary to invent one? Come to think of it, perhaps, in large part, the enemy has been invented. During the Cold War, the Department of Defense published an annual report, Soviet Military Power: An Analysis of the Threat. Primarily addressed to the Congress, it was in effect a wish list and a sales pitch for an ever-increasing military budget. When, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the military capability of the Soviets was closely inspected, the DoD assessment was found to be wildly inflated. (See my “What About The Russians? Personal Encounters“).

And now, the “necessary enemy” is Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, Whatever would we do without OBL? Had Osama (“wanted dead or alive” – George Bush) been captured or killed shortly after the 9/11 attacks, what then would have become of “the War on Terror:” Gitmo, “enhanced interrogation,” The Patriot Act, warrantless wiretaps, suspension of habeas corpus. How might the 2004 election have turned out? So we ask today, how was it possible for OBL to escape when he was surrounded at Tora Bora? And how is it possible for an individual with failing kidneys on dialysis to survive in the Afghan wilderness for eight years? “If there were no enemy, would it not be necessary to invent one?” Just wondering.


There is a need to create ideals even when you can’t see any route by which to achieve them, because if there are no ideals then there can be no hope and then one would be completely in the dark, in a hopeless blind alley.”

— Andrei Sakharov

If these “paranoid” suspicions are even partially correct – if the military-industrial complex has a death-grip on our economy and politics – how can we possibly escape? After all, just about the only thriving manufacturing enterprise remaining in the United States is the defense industry. If the Department of Defense appropriations were cut to a “reasonable” one-third, would not unemployment skyrocket and tax revenues plunge? Would not our already sick economy lapse into critical condition? In short, can we afford peace?

We can and we must, for the environmental and resource perils immediately before us far outweigh any military threats, either real or imagined.

If managed skillfully, a drastic cut in the military budget, far from aggravating the current economic crisis, can lead us out of it. After all, we’ve done it before. Just as, in 1942, the U.S. economy mobilized from a peacetime to a war economy in months, and then, in 1945, reversed the process in less time and led to a sustained era of prosperity, we can do it again.

What it will take is a unified sense of national purpose – a realization that as we take leave of a fictional crisis, we are facing an actual global emergency: global warming and the end of the petroleum age.

And just as World War II ended the great depression of the thirties, the new crises might put an end to the present economic emergency and inaugurate a renaissance of education, research, development, and industrialization, which means innovation, jobs and investments. New sources of energy and modes of transportation might be developed and installed. The next generations must then be educated to deal with the new world that we are leaving to them.

Simply stated, the military-industrial complex must not be dismantled, it must be converted.

All this is possible. But as long as the present political and economic structures prevail, I fear that it is very unlikely.

Quite frankly, I don’t see a way out. I’m not saying that there is no escape, just I can’t see one. But history has a way of surprising us. In 1933, new leaders took power in Germany and in the United States. One led his nation to ruin, and the other to renewal. “Two roads diverge…”

I once believed that Barack Obama might be another FDR who might inspire and unite the American people to overcome the dreadful crisis that he inherited from the disastrous Bush regime. But now, that hope has faded as Obama has apparently been co-opted by “the enemy.”

As I have often noted before, the situation before us appears to be hopeless: as hopeless as George Washington’s prospects at Valley Forge, as hopeless as Gandhi’s struggle against the British Empire, as hopeless as Martin Luther King’s Birmingham bus boycott, as hopeless as Andrei Sakharov’s protest against Soviet oppression.

And yet, somehow, they all ultimately prevailed.

In the final analysis, the oligarchs who own our government and control the media, however wealthy and powerful, are few. Their victims – all the rest of us – are many, and we are the ultimate source of their wealth and, through our passive acquiescence, of their power.

Shakespeare’s Cassius spoke to us as well a Brutus, when he said: “men at some time are masters of their fates. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings.”

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin and is the co-editor of The Crisis Papers. His e-mail is: Read other articles by Ernest, or visit Ernest's website.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on December 18th, 2009 at 9:52am #

    Bears repeating, i think,
    As long as the rich people rule an empire or country [and past certain degree] the strongest such an empire will also wage wars even if they only think they will lose, or not maintain their wealth.
    And, to boot, they cld wage wars also to gain new wealth. And call all that “defense of one’s interests”. So, i assert, it is as simple as that.

    This means, as always before, that there is a no agreement, pact, or treaty the ruling class won’t break if it thinks any previous pact, no matter how solemnly made, wld deter its “defense of self-interests”.

    With warming effects unknown, empire like US will, of course, wage even more wars, break more agreements than ever before. In short, grab as much as u can now before it is to late and err- if one must err to “defend US interests”- for the sake of US, its greatness, hallowed constitution, etc.

    Hey, folks, who wldn’t defend own greatness? Even if we may err or make mistakes in our inalianble right and duty to god to keep us safe and prosperous.
    With such thinkings-sayings, what can we expect? After all even their santa claus is not democratic. He won’t, or will he, visit every tent, refugee camp, igloo, or cardbaord box!
    I don’t think i am saying anything that had not been known for the last 10k yrs. Of course, not told kids! Because even kids wld understand it! And they mustn’t ever hear this! Tnx

  2. greybeard616 said on December 18th, 2009 at 6:24pm #

    The “good news” is that the man behind the curtain truly is without power unless we grant “him” power. The people can effect change, simply by refusing to buy into the “great Satan” myth (for is not the insurgent, rebel, etc. now marketed as the Great Satan, just as another society perceives Amerika as the Great Satan?). The only “good war” was WWII, and it was deliberately provoked by people wanting to re=establish their hegemony in Western Europe, and was hence avoidable. “For me and my house”, we refuse to accept the current “us against the world” marketing.

  3. Ian C.Cree,MB(Hons.),MS,FRCS(Eng.& C.),FACS,LRCP. said on December 19th, 2009 at 7:55pm #

    Ernest Partridge has written the most perceptive, penetrating, truthful and brilliant article on a summation of the world’s status today.
    There are innumerable clues to support these mostly hidden truths:

    1. The need for war to create or increase the power of power hungry leaders and to create or enrich the wealth of the Military-Industrial complex. Machiavelli, in his epic work “The Prince”, laid out a roadmap for successful leadership, which included the need for creating a war to become an esteemed leader. Julius Cesar, Napoleon, the Russian Czars, Adolph Hitler, and George W. Bush are all examples of leaders who adhered to these principles.

    2. The ongoing, absurd and massive squandering of national resources on unnecessary weaponry, such as new and ever more powerful nuclear weapons, rockets, and defence shields, unnecessary faster planes, submarines, and aircraft carriers. The strongest supporters of the need for these highly costly items were, very unsurprisingly, weapons manufacturers, aircraft manufacturers, all those involved in the nuclear power and weapons industries, and the Senators who were receiving massive “donations” to their election campaigns from such industries, and also Congressional earmarks for these industries.

    As Mr. Partridge points out, these weapons are all completely unnecessary in today’s world. The nuclear weaponry already in existence, is many times that needed to eliminate all life on earth. The Chernobyl reactor accident which spread radiation over the Ukraine and Byelorus, from which victims of that radiation are still dying today, also spread to the farms of Eastern England where the soil radioactivity is still dangerous. While the ultimate degree of radiation which would be caused by as few as 10 bombs, as radiation is carried around the world in air and ocean currents and by bird, animal and marine life, is unknown, these alone could probably eliminate most, or all of life on earth. Yet the USA and Russia alone have 10,000 bombs each. This is why nuclear war has been, and remains impossible, and why the Vietnam and Korean wars were unwinnable.
    It is certainly true that the military budget could be reduced to one third without affecting our ability to defend our nation. Such a reduction would remove virtually all the current problems with the economy and would fund a public option for health care 10 times over!

    “The war on terror”, justified by the attacks of 9/11 is generally perceived as having arisen without cause by a terrorist group bent on destroying the USA. This belies all logic!

    It has long been known that the USA has been an unrelenting ally of Israel, an artificial State created by the United Nations as a refuge for Jews following the Holocaust in which 6 million Jews were murdered.
    The territory belonged to Palestinian Arabs and was ruled by a British Mandate awarded to Britain by the League of Nations. The leadership of the New State of Israel regarded the entire territory of Palestine as
    belonging to Jews, on the basis of certain scriptures in the Bible, and regarded themselves as God’s Chosen People.

    The Palestinian people and their surrounding Arab neighbours regarded this same territory as Palestinian territory. Since the United Nations did not own Palestine, they were giving away territory which was not theirs to give.

    This paved the way for the 6 day war in which the Arab States were rapidly overwhelmed by the better equipped Israeli army with the support of the USA. The Palestinian people became subservient to the Jewish State and rebelled against Israeli rule (the Intifada).
    With the ongoing support of the USA, the Israeli State flourished while the Palestinians became 4th class citizens in their own land.
    The conflict continued in an attempt by the Palestinians to regain their own land. Since they had no planes, ships , tanks, or helicopters, they were constantly overwhelmed along with their Syrian and Lebanese allies.
    The Arab States were Muslim, adding a religious factor into the conflict which became ever more bitter. Their only weapons were small arms,
    rockets and suicide bombers, and these were no match for the well equipped Israeli army, Air force and Navy. However, they were determined fighters and were not going to give up easily.

    As in all wars, God was claimed by each side to be supporting them.
    The Palestinians suffered grievously, and all their Arab and Muslim allies felt for them.

    It was on this back drop that the Al Qaeda planned to attack the USA which was supporting Israel. The attacks did not just come out of the blue. In all wars fighters on your own side are heroes and freedom fighters. Those on your opponents’ side are terrorists.

    In general terrorists are never defeated and can carry on wars indefinitely. This is why claimed victories are usually hollow.
    The only way to defeat terrorists is by removing the reason for the terrorism.

    Many opportunities for ending the Israeli war were stymied by the folly of G.W.B., who demanded recognition of Israel by the Palestinians and who, along with the Israelis, refused to negotiate with the elected Hamas government.

    Since neither side has shown any intention of yielding, and unilateral support of Israel by the USA continually aborts the possibility for peace, the danger of further attacks on the USA is continually being prolonged. The ongoing settlement of the proposed new Palestinian State by Jews, including the demolition of Palestinian homes and businesses in the West Bank and Jerusalem, the blockade of Gaza and the savage attack on the people of Gaza, while keeping them trapped in the war zone, illustrates the intent of the Israeli leadership to conquer the entire Palestinian State.
    To date, no credible indication of a change of policy by Israel or the USA is forthcoming, and we cannot, therefore, hope for an end to terrorist attacks against the USA, no matter how many Taliban or
    Al Qaeda are killed or captured.

  4. Shabnam said on December 19th, 2009 at 8:17pm #

    [therefore, hope for an end to terrorist attacks against the USA, no matter how many Taliban or Al Qaeda are killed or captured.]

    As long as the ignorant people believe in this rubbish, the real terrorists, the United States – Israel – Britain, axis of evil, continue to kill innocent people mainly Muslims holding Al Qaeda – a phony construct – responsible. Al Qaeda is THE UNITED STATES and does not exist. Wake up

  5. Phil said on December 22nd, 2009 at 8:13am #

    …perhaps an agreement to cooperate with the U.S. and NATO in their opposition the Iranian nuclear weapons program.
    Seems pretty ridiculous. Wouldn’t there have to be some evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons program first?