On Friday, Jul. 7, 2023, the White House confirmed the decision to send cluster munitions to Ukraine. More than 100 countries outlawed the controversial weapons due to their inhumane, indiscriminate, and mutilating impacts. While hawkishly justifiable by the win-at-all-costs mentality that dictates this conflict, the decision to send cluster bombs to Ukraine forms a troublesome part of a broader global erosion of the acceptable standards of risk and conflict.
Each week, things once abhorrent and unpalatable begin the process of normalization. The war in Ukraine rolls on with the acceptable standards of combat declining each day. Brinkmanship continues in the Taiwan Straits with no escape ramp. Highly enriched uranium is possessed by more and more states. And millions are displaced from their homes by an immediate climate emergency that we consistently consign as a problem of the future.
All, in turn, undergo a reorientation in their public justification. Each extraordinary state of uncertainty, militarism, or negligence slowly becomes entrenched under the auspices of being unavoidable, necessary, and rational. Cluster munitions form part of this trend.
Indiscriminate Killing Tools
By their very nature indiscriminate, carpeting acres of land with negligible precision launching shrapnel and tearing body and limb, cluster munitions are rightly recognized by 123 states as abhorrent. In past conflicts, their military utility has been limited, and their human cost has been extraordinarily high. Historically, between 10-40% of cluster munitions have failed to detonate on impact. In Laos, this left between 9 and 27 million unexploded bombs lying dormant across the landscape — assassins lying in wait. Shockingly, 94% of recorded cluster bomb casualties are civilians and 40% of those are children. These weapons have claimed the lives of 86,000 civilians since World War II. Fifty years after the Vietnam War these bomblets continue to threaten people’s lives.
We have come to accept an unacceptable level of risk and an erosion of the standards of international behavior. Cluster bombs are just one piece of this puzzle.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan insists modern US cluster munitions only fail at a rate of 2.5%. But this is still 2.5 times higher than the standard for humane use set by the Department of Defense in 2008, which is 1% or less. There is also significant skepticism as to whether this test rate would hold up to scrutiny in combat conditions.
Their use in Ukraine constitutes an erosion of global standards and a failure of US leadership. Few things could have bolstered the US geopolitical and moral leadership of the West more clearly than this conflict. Yet, take a step back and US policy has partaken in a military race to the top and a moral race to the bottom for some time.
Ignoring the Rules-Based Order
Routinely, challenges to US power are portrayed as inevitable results of an unavoidable Thucydidian trap — as the upstart nation seeks to displace the ruling power, conflict is seemingly inevitable. But these conflicts should not be accepted as inevitable, they are the consequence of political and preventable choices. It is time to recognize that our approach to security is flawed. We prepare for war and fail to invest in peace. We flaunt international standards and express moral outrage at its reciprocation. Cyclically we watch one nation step toward the cliff’s edge in the name of “security,” “strategic interest,” and “deterrence” — bound cultishly to a death pact we fail to question.
States seek to match and make contingency plans regularly determined by the bar the United States sets. Pundits and analysts speak with desperation and trepidation over China’s planned expansion of its nuclear arsenal despite this still not overtaking US stockpiles. Politicians are incredulous that China could be so brazenly irresponsible in the Taiwan Straits without questioning the decades of military exercises conducted far outside of US jurisdiction. The international community reacts in shock as President Vladimir Putin places nuclear weapons in Belarus but accepts 100 US warheads across Europe. Strategists scramble to understand the impacts of Russia’s Arctic military installations but remain uncritical of the nearly 800 US military bases on foreign soil.
Exit the neoliberal paradigm, exit the military mindset, and the hypocrisy becomes unpalatable. Agent Orange, Guantánamo Bay, the invasion of Iraq, rendition, waterboarding, civilian deaths in drone strikes, sending nuclear weapons to Europe, political interference, and cluster bombing. The United States seeks to determine, not abide by, the restrictions of a rules-based international order. Privileged as the world’s strongest military and cultural power, there is an absolute double standard whereby US military development is unavoidable, necessary, and rational whilst all other states are aggressive, recalcitrant, and destabilizing.
Investing in Diplomacy and the Rules-Based Order
While American militarism breeds international militarism, American diplomacy can breed international peace. As we enter a three-powered world order, one that strategists and columnists fear-monger as inherently destabilizing, it is time to pivot away from military escalation and invest in the potential of diplomacy.
Despite the debt ceiling arrangements enforcing real-term cuts across the board, the Pentagon is still set to receive a $28 billion dollar budgetary increase. Pentagon spending could reach $1 trillion within the next two years; more than half of known spending goes to for-profit military contractors; and only 39% of total spending can be accounted for. In 2022, the defense budget was 13 times larger than that of the Department of State and the US Agency of International Development combined. In other words, the United States is investing in the means of war at 13 times the rate of diplomacy, bilateralism, and development. By contrast, China has doubled its diplomatic budget in the last 10 years and now has more diplomatic posts than the United States.
As international development backslides, the climate crisis worsens, and the global security situation intensifies it begs the question: Why is there continued faith that this paradigm works?
We have come to accept an unacceptable level of risk and an erosion of the standards of international behavior. Cluster bombs are just one piece of this puzzle. If the United States seeks continued global leadership, stooping to Russia’s precedent and bending to escalatory pressure is not the way to secure it. The foundations of international humanitarian law and the rules-based order are only as legitimate as their strongest proponents. If the United States wants these standards to function, and if it seeks to deter this kind of aggression abroad, its policies must respect them. US hypocrisy has gone on too long and is undermining the security it seeks to maintain.
Cluster munitions are inhumane and immoral. America’s allies know it, America’s adversaries will not forget it. A better standard must be set. In order to do so, the Biden administration should reverse its decision to send these abhorrent weapons to Ukraine.