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How Dangerous is the World? Part I

How Dangerous is the World? Part I

I largely agree with Peter’s recent, insightful post about U.S. grand strategy, except when he says that "Compared to the Cold War period, we have more slack in our security environment."  In this he echoes Kori’s earlier contention that "The world is much more conducive to American interests than [during the Cold War]: we are militarily dominant, the threats to us are fewer and less apocalyptic, our allies are more capable to handle their own problems, our enemies less so, and our values on the ascendancy."  This seems to be a fashionable view.  I recently heard an experienced foreign policy wonk claim at an event in D.C. that the United States currently faces "the lowest level of existential threat in U.S. history.

I disagree quite strongly — not because the Cold War was such a wonderfully safe era, but because ours is more dangerous.  Peter and I have both heard the view from our students that the Cold War was, on hindsight, a time of roses and sunshine, and I think he is right to criticize it.  Our young students confuse simplicity with safety.  It was a simple, dangerous world:  nuclear war was simply terrifying.  I am (just) old enough to have a living memory of the Cold War and the feeling of dread and danger it fostered.  We were still doing duck-and-cover drills when I was in the 3rd grade.  (Which always made me wonder:  if my 3rd grade desk was nuclear-bomb-proof, why didn’t they make the Pentagon out of the same material?)

Peter is right that the Cold War was ridiculously dangerous.  During the Cold War the Soviet Union and China had nuclear and conventional capabilities superior to what North Korea and Iran have today, and the United States lost some 95,000 troops in two bloody wars in Korea and Vietnam.  During the Cold War the United States and Russia competed globally; any local conflict had the potential to escalate into global war in which the American homeland would be directly threatened.  This was without doubt a dangerous era. 

Moreover, two things have changed since then that have made the United States safer.  First, Russia’s ideology is not as overtly hostile and globally expansionist as the Soviet Union’s was, shrinking the number of potential flashpoints with the great Bear.  Second, the United States is less likely to be a front-line state in a militarized conflict with Russia (or China) because the stakes are lower.  Some might claim this settles the argument:  we are safer today than during the Cold War. 

However, in my view, these are the single points on which we can claim to be safer than during the Cold War.  These considerations are far outweighed by the continuing presence of other enduring threats coupled with a host of new threats.  I wrote an earlier post about the greater dangers of our era, but my single, brief, off-the-cuff comments apparently failed to sway Peter from his view, rooted in a lifetime (two or three times longer than mine) of research and experience.  Alas, the limits of blogging.  I’d like to try again, in a series of posts on the current threats to American national security in the 21st Century.