“They don’t like the fact that we oppose them, and we like the fact that they don’t like the fact that we oppose them. Three hundred of us, surrounded by them, we’ve got them right where we wanted, right?”
This statement was made by the current Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, Ronald Green, in December of 2017 in reference to the 300-man-strong Marine Rotational Force stationed in Trondheim, Norway, approximately 200 miles north of Oslo. At the invitation of Norway, Marines began six-month training rotations there back in 2017.
Why? Because more than 25 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia has seemingly reemerged as a threat to Europe and the world. President Trump’s national security strategy, released in December of 2017, solidifies this stance in “Pillar 3: Preserve Peace through Strength,” which focuses on the return of “great power competition” with Russia and China.
American policy towards Russia now appears identical to what it was during the Cold War: contain the threat. But if the USSR and Russia are not the same by any stretch of the imagination, why is the policy the same, and more importantly, does it work?
Following World War II, as the Soviet Union consolidated its position behind the Iron Curtain, the United States deliberated over how to react. President Truman tasked the U.S. Department of State’s Policy Planning Staff with reviewing national security strategy.
Under the leadership of Paul Nitze, the staff created National Security Council Paper 58 (NSC-68), released in April 1950. Citing the “hostile design” of the Soviet Union and rejecting both isolationism and outright war, it recommended the “the rapid building up of the political, economic, and military strength of the free world.” The strategy was one of deterrence and containment backed by a credible capability to fight and win in the event of war.
Defense spending as a percentage of GDP tripled between 1950 and 1953 from 5 percent to 14 percent. In the words of President Eisenhower, “we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.”
We needed intelligence on the enemy and hence created the CIA in 1947, the NSA in 1952, and the DIA in 1961. Think tanks were born to develop policy and guidance. The DoD had to hire thousands more workers to administer the new defense establishment. A real enemy—the Soviet Union—justified a real defense establishment.
The key takeaway is that the starting point for Cold War strategy began with the enemy and necessitated a large military capability. Or as Israeli historian Martin Van Creveld notes in The Transformation of War, “nothing is more characteristic of strategy than its mutual, interactive character.” A strategy without an opponent is meaningless.
With the fall of the USSR, the Cold War came to a close. And in the American tradition, base closures and cuts to the size of the military soon followed. But the conflict with communism didn’t run a few years like World War II; it spanned the order of decades. Shuttering an armaments industry in business for 45 years with yearly budgets in the hundreds of billions wasn’t the same as closing a seasonal Halloween store.
As George Kennan foresaw the problem in 1987:
Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military-industrial establishment would have to go on, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented. Anything else would be an unacceptable shock to the American economy.
The successful containment strategy of the Cold War began with the enemy and necessitated a capability. Today that capability remains and is fighting for its life against reality. Small wars and insurgencies won’t do. A larger scale is required. The military-industrial complex requires industrial enemies.
Just as when a totalitarian government captures a legal system the motto of justice becomes “bring me the man and I’ll find the crime,” our defense policy motto after the Swamp captured the DoD has become “bring me a $700 billion defense bill and I’ll find you an enemy.” Or stated differently by Commander Salamander on his military blog in a post slamming the Air Force’s light attack program, “we have a procurement system that does not support the military; the military supports the procurement system.”
While there was much to criticize about America’s conduct during the Cold War, at the end of the day it was a win for the United States. And it is always hard to criticize results, regardless of the strategy. Today our biased and misguided policy is detrimental to legitimate foreign policy goals. In other words, it doesn’t work.
To seize Crimea, rather than roll in a column of tanks as in Hungary in 1956, Russia simply marched in unidentified “green men” and claimed the peninsula without a single life lost. The USSR might have fallen, but Russia learned. Our response? In addition to sanctions, $200 million dollars were allotted in the 2018 defense bill to upgrade air bases in Norway, Iceland, and the UK to deter Russia. If that sounds similar to the Cold War strategy of containment, that’s because it is. The system only knows one enemy: the USSR.
Viewed from this angle, the Marines seeking out “business opportunities” in Norway can be explained, but not justified. The Corps is simply executing the policy laid out in the Trump administration’s national security strategy. Proponents of this strategy claim it deters Russia from even considering an attack. But does any sober assessment of Russian aims or strategy include a large-scale war in Europe?
What would today’s Russia stand to gain from such a war? Russia is authoritarian but not totalitarian and no longer pushing for the worldwide revolution of the proletariat. The Gulags have been closed for decades, the Politburo and the police state have receded, and while the censorship remains in place, it’s been there since being instated by Catherine the Great in 1797. Neither land nor resources are good reasons for war. At 17.1 million square miles, Russia is the world’s largest country. Additionally, it’s ranked number one for energy reserves with a combination of coal, oil, and natural gas. Russia’s economy is also unlikely to sustain a large-scale war. The GDP of Italy at $1.8 trillion is comparable to Russia at $1.2 trillion, and the GDP of the EU is 10 times that of Russia.
Yet all the branches of the military are rushing to execute this Cold War strategy. The Army recently placed orders for 473 new Bradley infantry fighting vehicles. And after the last American tanks left Europe in 2013, the Army has returned to defend NATO against Russia.
Despite President Trump campaigning on the irrelevance of NATO and threatening the EU with consequences for failing to meet spending targets, the U.S. military base sites in Europe remain numerous and are growing. In his book Base Nation, David Vine explores our base presence in Europe. The United States has 174 base sites in Germany, 50 in Italy, 21 in Portugal, 27 in the UK, 10 in Belgium, seven in the Netherlands, five in Romania, four in Bulgaria, eight in Greece, and 17 in Turkey.
Russian military policy has had many recent successes: a short hybrid war against Georgia, a lightning seizure of the Crimea, and the defense of Syria’s Assad against ISIS and other factions. The United States has accrued losses in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and, at 17 years old, the war in Afghanistan.
And just as our system can’t adapt to new Russian tactics in Crimea, a simple map study of Norway reveals something troubling that borders on laughable: the Norwegian base at Trondheim is well over 700 rugged miles from Norway’s extreme northern border with Russia. If the industrial juggernaut of the USSR never sent its tank columns through the Fulda Gap in Germany, why would Russia send them through a small desolate sliver of land on her border with Norway that lies just beneath the Arctic Circle? What political end-state would be the goal of such a move? Even the average civilian can see the absurdity of a military attack through northern Scandinavia.
But these reasonable and necessary questions are irrelevant and inconvenient. Russia is the enemy and everything follows from this premise. Or as Norwegian opposition party members plainly asked, what exactly are Marines doing in Norway?
Jeff Groom is a former Marine officer. He is the author of American Cobra Pilot: A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show (2018). Follow him on Twitter @BigsbyGroom.