Some journalists like Steve Portnoy of CBS seem unable to grasp that escalations that might lead to nuclear war are a bad thing. The journalist seemed incredulous last week when asking White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki why the United States has not started a full-on war with Moscow. Psaki’s position—with which any reasonable person could agree—was that it is not in the interest of Americans “to be in a war with Russia.”
Washington’s reluctance to go to war might seem odd for anyone who has paid attention to American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. After all, for more than thirty years, Washington has been enthusiastic when presented with an opportunity to start wars with many countries—including the civilians who live there. Iraq has been a target twice. Washington made war on Afghanistan for more then twenty years. US launched repeated bombing campaigns against Serbia, and was happy to help bomb Libya. The US regime pushed for full-scale war with Syria, and the ultimately executed a small-scale invasion. US troops are in Syria to this day. Iran has long been a target, and starting a war with Iran has long been a given, with John McCain once singing “bomb,bomb,bomb,bomb,bomb Iran.” But now even the White House admits war with Russia is not in the interests of “the American people.”
In the past, when the United States regime accused other regimes of war crimes and aggression, that means regime change and war. It usually means widespread bombing campaigns against that “rogue” state’s cities and it often even means military occupation. But now we see Washington accusing Moscow of very similar crimes, and yet no regime change is on the table.
Don’t think that foreign states haven’t noticed the abrupt change in enthusiasm over war when it comes to nuclear-armed Russia. The contrast between the US’s aversion to war with Russia, and the US’s enthusiasm toward regime change in non-nuclear states, sends a clear message: states with nuclear arms won’t be targeted for regime change.
Why Regime Change Means Nuclear War
Yes, to some extent the opposition to war with Russia is due to Russia’s abilities in terms of conventional warfare. Moscow’s conventional defensive military capabilities far surpass anything that might have been used against US forces in countries like Iraq, Iran, or Syria. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Moscow’s military budget in 2020 was $66 billion. It was $12 billion in Iran during the same period. Both of these cases pale in comparison to the US’s gargantuan $700 billion-plus budget. But Russia’s conventional military is nonetheless enough to inflict enough damage on US forces in a conventional war to the point of making such a war politically costly to prowar policymakers in the United States. Moreover, current military spending isn’t even the whole story. Longterm warmaking capability matters also. The total industrial capacity of the United States—thanks to remaining latent nineteenth-century laissez-faire liberalism—is vastly larger than anything the far-more-socialist state of Russia could possibly muster.
The reason the administration is minimizing even provocations of Russia, however, is Moscow’s nuclear arsenal. Like the United States, Moscow controls more than 5,000 nuclear warheads, and more than enough are deliverable with ICBMs.
It is because of Russia’s nuclear arsenal that regime change is a total non-starter for any reasonable person in Washington—or anywhere else. Indeed, when President Biden, during a recent trip to Poland, said that Putin must be removed from power, Biden’s handlers rushed to publicly announce that it was not actually US policy to pursue regime change. Biden, we were told, was just confused and was expressing his personal feelings.
While it remains possible to conceive of a skirmish with Russia in areas outside Russia’s capital and core population centers, the idea of regime change remains completely off the table. Even borderland skirmishes present a risk of escalation that should be seen as unacceptable. But if the United States were to commit to a policy of regime change—as was the case in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, and contemplated in Syria—this would virtually guarantee nuclear war between the United States and Russia.
It is generally believed that nuclear weapons will be used by states only as a “last resort.” But what does “last resort” mean? It means imminent regime change. If the human beings who control a state fear that the state will cease to exist—and its personnel rounded up for war crimes tribunals and imprisonment—that’s when the nukes are likely to fly. This, of course, is why Israel maintains nuclear weapons. It doesn’t guarantee that foreign states will avoid all conflict with Israel. If, for example, Syria were to attempt to reclaim the Golan Heights, this may not trigger Israel’s use of its nuclear arsenal. But if Syrian troops began sweeping in toward Tel Aviv? Then it is easy to imagine the Israeli regime using its nuclear weapons to destroy Damascus and much of Syria.
The Lesson Learned
The reluctance of the United States to provoke direct conflict between Washington and Moscow will surely not escape the notice of countless other states that imagine they could end up raising the ire of the US’s foreign policy establishment for some real or perceived slight against Washington’s interests. After all, we’ve already seen what happens to non-nuclear regimes that are targeted by Washington. They end up like Libya and Iraq. Moreover, in both Iraq and Libya, the regimes had at one time pursued their own nuclear weapons programs. Both states were convinced via diplomatic efforts (and via threats of economic sanctions) to abandon their nuclear programs. In the end, the United States pursued regime change in both states, complete with the killing of each state’s head of state. The lesson? Giving up your nukear program is something foolish regimes do.
The conclusion is obvious for regimes that don’t wish to put themselves into the US’s sphere of influence: get nuclear weapons as soon as you can.
This lesson was learned long ago by North Korea. Within years after the US’s first war against Iraq (in 1990), Pyongyang was committed to obtaining nuclear weapons. It is possible that at this early state, the North Korean regime might have been convinced to abandon its program. But any chance of that completely evaporated after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the regime change in Libya in 2011. It was clear by then that from the point of view of the North Korean regime, it would be very much against their own self interest to give up nuclear weapons. And now the Ukraine war has made this point even more abundantly clear: Washington will fall all over itself avoiding even the perception that it plans regime change—when it comes to nuclear armed powers.
More savvy regimes have always known that nuclear arms bring independence from Washington. It’s why the French pursued their own nuclear program not controlled by the US or by NATO. The Franch wanted to make its own decisions. Both India and Pakistan did not want to take orders from the US in south Asia. And they both obtained their own nuclear arsenals. Last week, Pakistan’s Imran Khan may even have been the target of US meddling when Khan was ousted in a no-confidence vote. Certainly, many of Khan’s supporters believe the move to have been due to a “soft” regime change effort. Pakistan and the US have long had a very unstable relationship, but thanks to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, at least Islamabad doesn’t have to worry about a US military regime change effort in the style of Iraq or Libya. That fate is reserved for non-nuclear states.
And moving forward, this will become even more clear to the part of the world—that is, most of it—which wishes to remain outside the US sphere of influence. Nuclear arsenals mean independence from Washington, and as such, US foreign policy is probably the number one factor driving nuclear proliferation today.