Editor’s Note: Nic Robertson is CNN’s international diplomatic editor. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
In his two-hour annual State of Nation speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin was preening himself, preparing his gullible masses to vote for him later this month.
And what was his largest boast? Russia’s new nuclear-powered cruise missile, which he says can defy the US missile-defense shield.
It is bombastic talk in the extreme: a waggling of military parts in the faces of other nations, most likely right now the United States, whose own commander in chief is massively ramping up defense spending while downsizing his diplomatic power.
China has reportedly an electromagnetic gun mounted on a battleship capable of firing shells at seven times the speed of sound, hitting targets over the horizon before conventional defense systems can respond.
This isn’t just a problem for the Western arms industry – which suddenly looks very flatfooted, tooled up for wars from history – but a problem for the world at large.
At last month’s Munich Security Conference, NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spoke passionately about an arms race he sees unfolding.
The problem, he said, is Russia’s ballistic missile testing, which is seen in DC as an abrogation of the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the US and the Soviet Union. He added: “We see that Russia is modernizing its nuclear capabilities, developing new nuclear systems and increasing the role of nuclear weapons in its military strategy. This is a cause for real concern.”
It sounds like a chicken and egg scenario. But regardless of what came first, Putin now seems to have upped the stakes by claiming to have bigger and better weapons than anyone else on earth.
Over the past few months, Trump has called for a $75 billion dollar increase in defense spending while slashing the State Departments budget by more than a third.
But the fact that the world’s superpower appears to be sending a message – reversing Churchill’s guidance of “meeting jaw to jaw is better than war” – cannot be the only trigger for this invigorated arms chase.
China is building islands bristling with firepower and potentially malevolent capacity, increasing its demands that its territorial claims are respected, while also developing military bases half a world away.
The world’s second-largest economy is flexing itself in the mold of all emerging empires ready to engage in pursuit of its interests farther and farther from home.
And it doesn’t end there. There are other arms races – albeit on a smaller scale – underway around the world. In the past few years, Saudi Arabia became the world’s third-largest defense and security spender, much to the appreciation of the arms industries thereby enriched.
But as Newton observed in his third law of motion, “For each action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” As one army builds, so must an adversary respond in kind.
But as the weapon spending increases, the fragility of the balance become more precarious. More triggers means more fingers – and more likely the chance of mishap.
To push Newton’s postulations to their logical conclusion: When one finger does slip, so will they all.
So it should come as little surprise that just last month the world’s weather vane on impending conflict swung another degree for the worse.
The so called Doomsday Clock, first initiated in 1947 after the Second World War, is taken as a measure of how safe from global threats we all are. Its most relaxed setting was in 1991, 17 minutes to midnight.
In January of this year, the clock advanced to two minutes to midnight, equaling its most dire status yet, which was achieved in 1953, when the United States and the Soviet Union began testing hydrogen bombs.
Though Putin will likely have only raised the stakes for bombast and self-aggrandizement at home, the message, nonetheless, is chilling for everyone.
This article has been updated to include a longer version of the NATO Secretary General’s remarks.