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Nightmare of an October Surprise

The preservation of constitutional democracy in the United States could depend on our preparing for a possible—if very unlikely—October Surprise.

"Several weeks ago, he announced that he would like to host Putin in the United States before the November election," writes Gerson, "Was that just one more of our political clown’s outrageous statements? Or, might it have been a negotiating signal?" (Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev/Getty Images)

"Several weeks ago, he announced that he would like to host Putin in the United States before the November election," writes Gerson, "Was that just one more of our political clown’s outrageous statements? Or, might it have been a negotiating signal?" (Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev/Getty Images)

Last night I had the strangest dream. I’m hoping it was just a fevered nightmare.

For the last several months, U.S. and Russian negotiators have been meeting intermittently, reportedly to explore possible extension of the New START Treaty. That treaty set the limit of 1,550 strategic (and omnicidal) nuclear warheads. More importantly, its verification provisions for intrusive inspections ensuring a degree of transparency and thus mutual trust. It Is scheduled to expire in February 2021. Should Trump refuse to extend the Treaty, we face the increased dangers of the unstrained nuclear arms race that he seems to want.

My dream wasn’t about New START. It was more frightening.

Even as the Russians have pressed for the Treaty extension, the Trump administration has been making the unrealistic demand it will not concur unless China joins the negotiations. This is unrealistic because China’s nuclear arsenal is 1/5 the size of that of the United States’. What's more, the U.S. is in the process of spending up to $ 2 trillion to upgrade all of its nuclear warheads and nuclear weapons delivery systems. It is also reinforcing its first-strike nuclear warfighting doctrine and potential by deploying so-called “missile defenses” within striking distance of China. In addition to their ostensible role in protecting the hundreds of U.S. military bases and forward deployments on China’s periphery in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia, missile defenses may be able to prevent a Chinese retaliatory strike by destroying Beijing’s missiles that manage to survive a U.S. first strike. Consequently, Beijing is debating the possibility of augmenting its nuclear forces in order to retain a second-strike retaliator capability.

But my dream wasn’t about first-strike, retaliatory missile defense weaponry. It was about November’s election.

The widespread assumption in the U.S. arms control community is that the U.S.-Russian negotiations are primarily for show, a means to further isolate China.  Until my nightmare, I didn’t take that too seriously, given the very dangerous military U.S.–Chinese confrontations in the South China Sea. The possibility of an incident there that could escalate to the unthinkable on the eve of the election is a nightmare that many share.

My nightmare was rooted in my memories of the 1972 presidential election, even before Watergate. My imagination led me to wonder if the negotiations are really only political theater many in the arms control community have assumed.

With next to zero information leaking out from the negotiations being held in Vienna, and even as our news is understandably focused on the pandemic and conventions, it seems worth inquiring if Trump’s reelection campaign might also remember Kissinger’s and Nixon’s opening to China months before the 1972 election. Nixon’s trip to China cemented a tacit U.S.-Chinese alliance that served to further isolate the Soviet Union. Its related pageantry and news coverage paved the resulting broad avenue that led to Nixon’s landslide reelection despite the Vietnam War.

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Putin has long connived to keep the fatuous Trump, who has accelerated U.S. decline, in office. Might he be playing Trump and the U.S. people for patsies yet again, this time to consolidate the political, economic and thus military implosion of its primary enemy?  There is a natural neo-fascist alignment between the two autocrats and their bases. In addition to seeking to restore past national glories, their political bases are each committed to related white Christian supremacy despite their Orthodox/Protestant fundamentalist sectional differences. 

A nugget from a Trump throwaway line fuels my fears. Several weeks ago, he announced that he would like to host Putin in the United States before the November election. Was that just one more of our political clown’s outrageous statements? Or, might it have been a negotiating signal?

Surprises happen. If history rhymes rather than repeats, we should revisit the parallels between this moment and the months that proceeded the 1914 guns of August, when a terrorist’s bullets in remote Sarajevo triggered the First World War (which in turn set the stage for the Second World War). In addition to that era’s dangerous nationalisms, complex alliance structures, arms races with new technologies, intertwined but competitive economies, and wild card actors, a very few monarchs—today’s autocrats— held the fate of the world in their hands and failed humanity.

Certainly, there is much to be criticized about China’s repressive domestic political system and its increasingly aggressive foreign and military policies that mirror those of Trump World. That said, allying with the corrupt, racist, Christian supremist and murderous Russian autocracy is certainly not in the interest of the U.S. people. Common Security diplomacy, like that which contributed to the end of the cold war, would be a far more rational and life-affirming approach to U.S. tensions with both China and Russia.

Geography dictates that Russia will lie astride China until the tectonic plates engage in their own revolution. With Russia’s post-Cold War economic, military and diplomatic integration with increasingly powerful China, breaking with Beijing seems most unlikely.

I’m hoping I’ve just had a fevered nightmare, and that you’ll say it ain’t so.

But, the cautious voice within me also fears that the preservation of constitutional democracy in the United States could depend on our preparing for a possible—if very unlikely—October Surprise.

Joseph Gerson

Joseph Gerson

Dr. Joseph Gerson is Executive Director of the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security and Vice-President of the International Peace Bureau. His most recent book is Empire and the Bomb: How the US Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World. His previous books include The Sun Never Sets and With Hiroshima Eyes.

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