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What’s the Quickest Path to World War III?


THE RETURN OF GREAT POWERS: Russia, China, and the Next World War, by Jim Sciutto

UP IN ARMS: How Military Aid Stabilizes — and Destabilizes — Foreign Autocrats, by Adam E. Casey


Every few months in the years that Donald J. Trump was president, Iran made a show of its ballistic missiles — the powerful rockets that can deliver nuclear warheads from one nation to another — and set off a small panic in Washington. The tests went like this: A missile flew up from one part of Iran, traveled through the country’s airspace and, ideally, blew up harmlessly in another part of Iran, hundreds of miles away.

The former White House political adviser John Kelly remembers that, on one such occasion, after intelligence of an impending missile launch came in, Trump said he wanted to shoot the weapon down. “Well, sir, that’s an act of war,” Kelly recalls telling him. “You really need to go over to Congress and get at least an authorization.”

“They’ll never go along with it,” Trump apparently replied.

“Well, I know,” Kelly said. “But that’s our system.”

This anecdote and many other alarming scenes appear in Jim Sciutto’s “The Return of Great Powers,” an absorbing account of 21st-century brinkmanship. Sciutto has interviewed several of Trump’s former advisers, including Kelly, who explains that he managed to talk his old boss out of some of his worst ideas only by suggesting they would hurt his standing in public opinion. “Americans, generally speaking by polling, think that we should be involved in the world,” he recalls telling Trump when the president threatened to pull the United States out of NATO.

The former national security adviser John Bolton is even more blunt about this episode. “Honest to God,” Bolton says, “it was frightening because we didn’t know what he was going to do up until the last minute.”

That such political figures would speak so candidly can be partly credited to Sciutto’s standing as CNN’s chief national security analyst and his earlier stint with the State Department under Barack Obama. He’s the kind of well-connected reporter who, as we learn in this book, gets a call at 3 a.m., in February 2022, from an unnamed Congress member to warn him that a war in Ukraine is imminent.

It also reflects the unbridled horror that insiders like Kelly and Bolton feel at the prospect of a second Trump administration taking charge amid a perilous superpower chess game. “The Return of Great Powers” argues that we are living through a Cold War redux that once again pits the United States against Russia and China. The battle is being waged on every imaginable front, from undersea communication cables to satellites in outer space and the growing frontiers of artificial intelligence.

Sciutto begins with cinematic jumps between an eclectic assortment of personalities — American generals and congressional leaders, Finnish diplomats and Taiwanese naval captains — in the days and hours leading up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In later sections, the white-knuckle tension he experiences as Russian warplanes close in on a NATO fleet conducting exercises near the Baltic Sea is eerily echoed by Chinese jets operating in the Taiwan Strait.

One great difference between this cold war and the last, Sciutto contends, is that the guardrails erected to prevent superpower rivalries from sliding into catastrophe have been steadily dismantled. Over the past quarter-century, both the United States and Russia have abandoned one arms control treaty after another and lines of communication between all three powers have been purposely reduced. As one unnamed State Department official tells Sciutto, when a mysterious Chinese balloon drifted across North America last fall, the Chinese military “refused to pick up the phone.”

Add to this precarity those proxy mischief-makers — North Korea, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to name a few — that might see advantage in provoking a superpower showdown. It’s enough to send those with a front-row view into the old basement bomb shelter.

Or to cause them to share their fears with a reputable journalist. Virtually all of Sciutto’s interlocutors are aligned: A defeated Ukraine will embolden Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, to attack one of the other countries, perhaps Estonia or Moldova, that have already caught his covetous eye. It might also encourage an impatient Xi Jinping of China to force a military solution to “the Taiwan question,” an event that some observers see as a precursor to global war.

Having identified the peril, Sciutto’s panelists also agree on the solutions: unwavering commitment to the defense of Ukraine; greater integration of NATO forces; much closer cooperation between the European and Asian blocs of democratic nations. Ironically, many of these recommendations are now being enacted thanks to the Russian invasion and Chinese encroachments — long-neutral Sweden and Finland have joined NATO, and East Asian nations have strengthened their mutual defense pacts.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t cause for concern. Trump, once again his party’s presumptive presidential nominee, has fought against U.S. military aid to Ukraine and urged Russia “to do whatever the hell” it wants to NATO members who fail to meet their financial obligations. The litany of international dangers Sciutto describes, set alongside the recollections of some of Trump’s closest former advisers, is the stuff of unholy nightmares.

For all its strengths, “The Return of Great Powers” sometimes displays a peculiar awkwardness in conveying others’ views. Sciutto can let his subjects meander around points that are not particularly interesting or original — or, at times, even comprehensible. On the matter of standing up to Russia, for example, he quotes a senior Western diplomat as stating: “The idea that we can’t do this is completely false, but the problem is also economically and physically we have that capability. But then, do we have it politically? It’s going to be a different game. But am I concerned? Yes.”

I suppose I’d be concerned, too, if only I could grasp what he’s talking about. Still, these are mere quibbles when set against the import of Sciutto’s book, one that should be read by every legislator or presidential nominee sufficiently deluded to think that returning America to its isolationist past or making chummy with Putin is a viable option in today’s world.

The ideal way forward for a great power like the United States has always been fraught, and looking back at the mistakes and successes of the Cold War is often instructive, but not always. Adam E. Casey’s “Up in Arms” is well written and clearly the product of prodigious research; it also shows how Cold War comparisons can sometimes go too far.

Casey, a former academic who is now a national security analyst for a curiously unspecified branch of the U.S. government, sets out to re-examine the accepted wisdom that U.S. aid to totalitarian regimes served to maintain and prolong those dictatorships during the latter half of the 20th century. In rebutting this thesis, he sets out some statistics that are initially eye-catching. According to his examination of hundreds of Cold War authoritarian regimes, Soviet-supported rulers survived, on average, twice as long as American-supported ones. Most startling, in any given year, U.S.-backed dictators were about seven times more likely to fall than their Soviet counterparts.

As he points out, though, the Soviets exported their own military model to client states, which meant an armed forces thoroughly infiltrated by Communist Party commissars, and counterintelligence officers whose primary focus was keeping watch over the ideological steadfastness of their own rank and file. The result was an army wholly subordinate to the party and the state, drastically reducing the odds of a military coup.

By contrast, the U.S.-military model called for building out an anti-communist army independent of whatever tyrant happened to be in power at the time, often leading to the creation of a parallel power base that might ultimately challenge said tyrant. The American method was less durable, because it often yielded a round robin of military coups led by anti-communist officers against other anti-communist officers.

How did these different approaches alter the global chessboard? Remarkably, hardly at all. While Casey astutely points out that the American model was a perfect breeding ground for corruption, human rights abuses and governmental instability, he also notes that over the entire half-century span of the Cold War, only one military coup — Laos in 1960 — led to an actual ideological realignment of a U.S.-backed regime, and then only briefly. This is why, Casey explains, American cold warriors weren’t inclined to change course, despite their awareness of the chaos they had wrought.

Casey gamely suggests his findings might have currency as the planet enters another period of superpower jockeying, but it is hard to see precisely how this military-proxy dynamic of yore replicates itself. China has never shown much interest in extending its martial reach to countries beyond Asia, and Russian military tutelage is surely trading at a deep discount after its dismal Ukrainian outing.

As for the United States, while displaying little reservation about cozying up to despots when convenient — witness some of the grotesqueries it has climbed into bed with for the so-called “war on terror” — it’s hard to imagine any eagerness to go back to the days of army-building in the wake of America’s Iraq and Afghanistan war hangovers.

That being said, the last Cold War went on for decades. In 10 or 20 years, the hangovers could fade. China’s economic ties to countries like Uganda and Ethiopia, Russia’s support of Cuba and Venezuela and American entanglements in Southeast Asia and the Middle East all have the potential to turn from cold to warm, or from warm to boiling hot. Giving up on democracy is all the rage these days. The leaders of the great powers could start eyeing Cold War-inspired playbooks like Casey’s, with dire results for everyone caught in between.


THE RETURN OF GREAT POWERS: Russia, China, and the Next World War | By Jim Sciutto | Dutton | 353 pp. | $30

UP IN ARMS: How Military Aid Stabilizes — and Destabilizes — Foreign Autocrats | By Adam E. Casey | Basic Books | 323 pp. | $32



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