A Phony War for Our Times


The ‘phony war’ is the term used to describe the period between Germany’s invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 and followed in short order by the declaration of war by Britain and France, and the blitzkrieg that saw France defeated in less than a month in May 1940. This was a period in which war was anticipated, accompanied by an accelerated re-armament programme in the two countries. Today there is something of a similar atmosphere, although in a very different historical situation. This article argues that it is worth reviving the term. It imbues the present period with the heightened sense of threat and the ever-present danger of escalation of the present rhetorical confrontation into full-scale warfare.  

The 25-year period of the ‘cold peace’ came to an end in 2014 as the long-anticipated breakdown of the ill-constructed European security finally took place amid revolution and intervention in Ukraine. On both sides there have been re-armament programmes accompanied by propaganda campaigns and the ‘demonisation’ of the enemy. All this looks like a new Cold War, defined as a deeply entrenched struggle with the potential to become an outright military conflict, but in which neither side is actively preparing for immediate war. Robert Legvold is right to argue that this is not a repetition of the original Cold War, but represents a new Cold War.[1] However, Andrew Monaghan rightly notes that the idea of a new Cold War is anachronistic and misplaced, looking back to the previous conflict rather than examining the dynamics of the present one.[2]

The renewed confrontation is undoubtedly part of a broader reconfiguration of the international system. Although in Europe and US-Russian relations elements of a new Cold War were restored, these are relatively localised in spatial terms, and lack the intense ideological quality of the earlier conflict. The renewed confrontation has global aspects, and the rhetoric at times has been quite vicious, but the epicentre is no longer a battle between competing visions of Europe. There are elements of an ideational conflict, but this is far from the entrenched and substantive ideological differences sustained by the left-right division that sustained the Cold War. Instead, the conflict is generated by unresolved issues at the end of the Cold War, notably a stable and inclusive security order for Europe, as well as by the radicalisation of positions, in part generated by contestation over the ‘new West’ in the borderlands of Europe.

 I suggest that instead of trying to shoehorn the present historical period into the model of a revived Cold War, the notion of a new phony war better conveys the present dangers. As many commentators have stressed, the world today is facing greater dangers than even at the height of the Cold. There are fewer intellectual and ideological restraints, and the conventions of conflict management have been largely forgotten amidst the triumphalism that attended the end of the Cold War. Two fundamental forces now face each other across the borderlands of Europe – the logic of enlargement pursued by the Atlantic powers, and the logic of transformation still residually upheld by Russia. Now both sides are digging in for a long and irreconcilable conflict

 This is reflected in some recent strategic documents issued by the United States. The National Security Strategy unveiled on 18 December 2017 represents a return to elements of the ‘Bush doctrine’ of American primacy, including a wider role for nuclear weapons against ‘non-nuclear strategic attacks’. The document warned against the ‘revisionist powers of China and Russia’, ranked alongside the ‘rogue powers of Iran and North Korea’ and the ‘transnational threat organisations, particularly jihadist groups’.[3] The previous edition issued under Barack Obama described Russia as a threat alongside the ebola virus and ISIS, but it is now elevated to join the company of ‘rogue states’. This can be seen as recognition that the fundamental issue is the realist one of great power conflict rather than one based on the emotional normativism of the US-led liberal international order.

The new Strategy reflects the reassertion of the influence of the traditional Republican national security establishment over the hegemonic messianism of the neoconservatives and the globalism of the liberal interventionists. The new strategy has nothing to say about promoting democracy, a key theme of the George W. Bush and Obama presidencies, and instead reflects Donald J. Trump’s antiglobalist ‘America first’ concerns. Although critical of Russia, the document reserved its harshest language for China.

In his speech presenting the document, Trump reaffirmed his desire to ‘build great partnership’ with Russia and other countries, ‘but in a manner that always protects our national interest’. He acknowledged Putin’s call thanking him for the information provided by the CIA that averted a terrorist attack in St Petersburg, noting ‘That is the way it is supposed to work’. He insisted that ‘we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone’, and added that he would ‘not allow inflexible ideology to become an obstacle to peace’.[4] He reiterated the theme of ‘peace through strength’, and emphasised his military build-up, which raised the US defence budget for 2018 to $700 billion (£523bn).[5] This was at a time when the Russian defence budget for the same year was only $46 billion (2.8 per cent of GDP), with half spent on acquisitions and half on maintenance.[6]

The document was prepared by H. R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, and one of his key deputies, Nadia Schadlow. In response, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov noted that ‘Looking through [the strategy], particularly those parts concerning our country, one can see the imperial nature of the document, as well as persistent unwillingness to abandon the idea of a unipolar world and accept a multipolar world’, and he rejected the country’s designation as a threat to US security.[7] China also opposed America’s globalist and interventionist agenda, rejecting the insinuation that it was a ‘revisionist state’ and urged the US to ‘abandon its cold war mentality’.[8]

These themes were accentuated in the new National Defence Strategy, an 11-page unclassified version of which was issued on 19 January 2018. The document argued that the US was emerging from a period of ‘strategic atrophy’ and needed to face ‘increased global disorder’ in which ‘Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in US national security’. Top of the list of challengers was China, which was characterised as ‘a strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbours while militarizing features in the South China Sea’. As for Russia, ‘it has violated the borders of nearby nations and pursues veto power over the economic, diplomatic, and security decisions of its neighbours’.[9] The two states, as in the National Security Strategy, were labelled ‘revisionist powers’.

The list of charges against Russia is far-reaching: ‘Russia seeks veto authority over nations on its periphery in terms of their governmental, economic, and diplomatic decisions, to shatter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and change European and Middle East security and economic structures to its favour. The use of emerging technologies to discredit and subvert democratic processes in Georgia, Crimea, and eastern Ukraine is concern enough, but when coupled with its expanding and modernizing nuclear arsenal the challenge is clear’. The document noted the ‘resilient, but weakening, post WWII international order’, and warned that competition with China and Russia threatened America’s global predominance and eroded its military advantage. [10]

The document made no bones about its concern over the loss of American military superiority, which used to be total and unquestionable: ‘We could generally deploy our forces when we wanted, assemble them where we wanted, and operate how we wanted. Today, every domain is contested – air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace’.[11] Such days would not return, and Russia was indeed one of the main challengers.

The Nuclear Posture Review revealed on 27 January 2018 once again lamented that the US had ‘continued to reduce the number and salience of nuclear weapons’, while others, ‘including Russia and China, have moved in the opposite direction’.[12] The document asserted that ‘The United States does not wish to regard either Russia or China as an adversary and seeks stable relations with both’; [13] but went on to outline an ambitious programme for the modernisation of US nuclear forces (something that had begun by Obama) that could not but ramp up nuclear confrontation. In particular, the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons was reduced by increasing the flexibility of US nuclear options by including low-yield options in its SLBM warheads, while developing its nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM). The strategic thinking, redolent of the worst periods of the Cold War, argued that ‘These supplements will enhance deterrence by denying potential adversaries any mistaken confidence that limited nuclear deployment can provide a useful advantage over the United States and its allies’.[14]

Overall, the defence secretary James Mattis argued that the addition of a new cruise missile to the US nuclear arsenal would provide extra leverage to US negotiators trying to persuade Russia to top violating the Intermediate Nuclear Force treaty of 1987.[15] It would have made better sense for the US to have announced precisely how Russia was allegedly in breach of the INF treaty, but the approach is clearly one that ratchets up tensions and makes agreement more difficult. This particularly affects the 2011 New START treaty, due to expire in 2021. Paradoxically, the treaty came into full effect just at this time, on 5 February, with both sides having met the limit of 1,500 deployable weapons. The Nuclear Posture Review showed no enthusiasm for its renewal. As the Russian foreign ministry commented on 3 February, ‘the document is focused on confrontation and is anti-Russia’.[16]

The nuclear tensions are reinforced by a new wave of sanctions. In July 2017 Congress imposed a range of measures to limit the president’s ability to ease or lift the existing ones. The earlier sanctions imposed by Obama through executive orders were now given legislative force, and thus could not be rescinded by the new president.[17] The December 2012 Magnitsky Act already imposed penalties on Russians allegedly involved in the death of the auditor Sergei Magnitsky, and the list was now extended to cover more individuals. On 28 July the US Senate voted 98-2 to adopt the new sanctions, officially called ‘HR 3364 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act’ or CAATSA, and a reluctant Trump had no choice but to sign it into law on 2 August. It called for a range of lists, including investigations into the wealth and holdings of Russia’s wealthiest people. The US Treasury was required to issue a detailed report listing ‘senior foreign political figures and oligarchs in the Russian Federation’ including individuals close to Putin, and their estimated net worth and known sources of income.

The CAATSA measure stipulated 12 sanctions measures against Russia. Section 241 called for the Treasury Department in consultation with others to submit within 180 days a detailed report identifying ‘the most significant senior political figures and oligarchs’ in Russia, as determined by their closeness to the Russian regime and their net worth. The ‘Kremlin list’ was issued on the very last day allowed, 29 January 2018, and proved a disappointment to those who anticipated a harsh line. It appears that a list drawn up by experts in the hawkish Atlantic Council was jettisoned and instead 114 names of top officials was drawn from the English-language part of the Kremlin website and the catalogue of 96 oligarchs used the list of Russian billionaires of Forbes Russia. No immediate sanctions were placed on the 210 (except for the 22 who were already on pervious sanctions lists), drawing an angry response from the likes of Senator Ben Cardin, the ranking member of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who wrote to secretary of state Rex Tillerson saying that the failure to impose new sanctions was ‘unacceptable’.[18]

These recent developments are paradoxical. With the end of the cold peace in 2014 and the onset of the new phony war, there is a new element of flux in international politics, intensified by the Brexit vote and Trump’s election. Two powerful competing trends are at work. The first is for the intensification of Cold War practices, accompanied by reinforced solidarity of the Atlantic powers and a solid front against Russia. The second recognises the changing dynamics in international politics, and understands that Russian actions in Ukraine were a consequence rather than the cause of the breakdown in the European security order, itself provoked by the first trend, and tried to devise new policies to respond to shifts in global order. The second is still a minority view, but with all of its contradictions began to be grasped by Trump. The Russiagate scandal allowed the consolidation of the power of the military traditionalists and stymied the development of this trend, and instead the ‘bipartisan’ foreign policy of American primacy was restored in its traditional forms.

Before these recent events, with intensified sanctions and the publication of the US strategic documents, it could have been argued that it was possible but unlikely that the new phony war would turn into a full-scale conflict. Now in all likelihood it is a probability.[19] The latest Munich Security Report argues that the risk of armed conflict between Russia and NATO has increased because of rising tensions over military exercises and the weakening of arms control agreements, yet suggests that there is a way back from the brink [20] I am not so sure. The original phony war lasted a mere nine months, whereas this one will soon have lasted longer than the Great War (4 years and 3 months). In the best of circumstances, a phony war can last indefinitely, especially in conditions of balanced nuclear deterrence; but in the worst of circumstances it can suddenly erupt into full-scale inter-state conflict. With planes and ships operating in tight corridors in the Black and Baltic seas, and the increasing militarisation of the borderlands in Eastern Europe, an accident could rapidly escalate into full-scale war. Neither side wants this, so the situation is very different from 1939. However, as in 1914, the contending parties can slide into war. We have now entered the most dangerous period in humanity’s history in which there is a high chance that this history will be extinguished.

[1] Robert Legvold, Return to Cold War (Cambridge, Polity, 2016).

[2] Andrew Monaghan, A ‘New Cold War’? Abusing History, Misunderstanding Russia (London, Chatham House Research Paper, May 2015).

[3] National Security Strategy of the United States, December 2017, p. 25, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf

[4] ‘Donald Trump Delivers a Speech on National Security Policy’, 18 December 2017, https://factba.se/transcript/donald-trump-speech-national-security-december-18-2017.

[5] Julian Borger, ‘Trump Says US Could Use Nuclear Weapons against Conventional Attacks’, Guardian, 19 December 2017, p 16.

[6] These are the figures given by Putin in his annual press conference on 14 December 2017.

[7] ‘Washington’s New Security Strategy has “Imperial Nature” – Kremlin’, www.rt.com, 19 December 2017, https://www.rt.com/news/413625-us-security-strategy-peskov/.

[8] ‘”Abandon Cold War Mentality”: China Hits Back at Trump’s “Selfish” National Strategy’, www.rt.com, 19 December 2017, https://www.rt.com/news/413630-china-us-national-security-strategy/.

[9] Summary of the 2018 National Defence Strategy of the USA: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge (Washington, DC, Department of Defense, 2017), p. 1.

[10] Summary of the 2018 National Defence Strategy, p. 2.

[11] Summary of the 2018 National Defence Strategy, p. 3.

[12] Secretary of Defense, Nuclear Posture Review, February 2018, p. 1, https://www.defense.gov/News/SpecialReports/2018NuclearPostureReview.aspx.

[13] Nuclear Posture Review, February 2018, p. 2.

[14] Nuclear Posture Review, February 2018, p. 7.

[15] ‘Mattis: Proposed US Cruise Missile a Bargaining Chip with Russia’, RFE/RL Russia Report, 6 February 2018, https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-mattis-cruise-missile-bargaining-chip/29023940.html.

[16] Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ‘Comment by the Information and Press Department on the US Nuclear Posture Review’, 3 February 2018, http://www.mid.ru/en/diverse/-/asset_publisher/zwI2FuDbhJx9/content/kommentarij-departamenta-informa....

[17] Obama imposed executive sanctions on 6 March and 18 December 2014, 1 April 2015, and 26 July and 29 December 2016.

[18] ‘US Senators Decry Decision to Hold Off on New Russian Sanctions’, RFE/RL Russia Report, 31 January 2018, https://www.rferl.org/a/us-senators-attack-trump-decision-hold-off-russia-sanctions/29009067.html.

[19] Jeffrey Edmonds, ‘How America Could Accidentally Push Russia into Nuclear War’, The National Interest, 6 February 2018, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/how-america-could-accidentally-push-russia-nuclear-war-24378.

[20] Munich Security Conference, Munich Security Report 2018: To the Brink – and Back?,  https://www.securityconference.de/en/discussion/munich-security-report/munich-security-report-2018/.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

Related articles

The Limits of Global Containment: How to Win in a New Cold War
It is now safe to talk about a dramatic change in US foreign policy strategy. From its attempts to universalize the so-called “liberal international order” created by Washington in the 1940s and to

Dmitry Suslov

Expert Opinions
From Broken Promises to Cold War II
The National Security Archive published 30 documents that unequivocally testified that during the 1990 negotiations between Soviet and Western leaders, it was indeed promised by the highest officials

Rein Müllerson

Expert Opinions
Robin Wright on the Evolution of the United States Iran Policy
Robin Wright, Senior Fellow at the US Institute of Peace, discusses the evolution of the US Middle East policy with a special focus on Iran. According to her, Donald Trump believes that all issues