Shadow Government

How Dangerous Is the World? Part II

In my last post I noted that Peter, among others, has argued that the United States is safer today than during the Cold War.  I conceded that we are safer in some ways:  Russia no longer holds to an overtly hostile and globally expansionist ideology, and the United States is less likely to be a ...

Andy Wong - Pool/Getty Images
Andy Wong - Pool/Getty Images

In my last post I noted that Peter, among others, has argued that the United States is safer today than during the Cold War.  I conceded that we are safer in some ways:  Russia no longer holds to an overtly hostile and globally expansionist ideology, and the United States is less likely to be a front-line state in a militarized conflict with Russia or China.

Nonetheless, I want to argue that overall, the international environment is more dangerous today than during the Cold War.  In this post I want to focus on one point:  the threat from Russia and China has not gone away and, in the case of China, has greatly increased. 

Threat is comprised by capability and intent.  Let me look at both factors in both countries.  First, Russia has one of the greatest military capabilities in the world.  Russia’s army and nuclear forces remain among the largest and most formidable around.  Russia’s conventional forces are more professional and more technologically well-equipped than they were during the Cold War.  So are ours, of course, but the point is that Russia’s military is one of the few that should at least give us pause before we get into a fight with it.  On purely material grounds, Russia remains one of the few powers capable of posing a serious danger to us.

What about intent?  As I conceded above, the main change regarding Russia since the Cold War is its ideology.  It no longer purports to be leading a global revolution to overthrow all capitalist states.  But that does not mean Russia has friendly or peaceful intentions towards the United States.  In fact, Russia’s contemporary ideology-call it authoritarian and nationalist, coupled with limited expansionism-remains highly troubling.  Russian officials have been fairly clear about their intent to balance against the United States, oppose unipolarity, and revive Russia’s hegemony over its near-abroad-none of which are consistent with U.S .interests.

U.S. and Russian interests clash most clearly in eastern Europe-especially the Baltics and Ukraine.  Remember that Russia probably cyberattacked Estonia-a NATO ally-in 2007 and did in fact invade Georgia, to whom we had promised future NATO membership, in 2008.  In response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia, the U.S. Air Force flew Georgian Army units from Iraq back to Georgia so they could fight Russian forces, which could plausibly be interpreted as American participation in hostilities and an act of war against Russia.  The Russo-Georgian war was the closest we have come to World War III since the Cuban Missile Crisis, something virtually everybody missed in 2008.  Look for the sequel in Ukraine, or possibly the Baltics, sometime in the next decade.  It is not hard to imagine Putin allowing these flashpoints to spiral dangerously to win nationalist plaudits at home.

China in 2011 is even more clearly a danger equal to or greater than the danger it posed during the Cold War.  We went through two phases with China:  from 1950 to 1972 the United States and China were declared enemies and fought to a very bloody stalemate in the Sino-America battles of the Korean War, but the overt hostility was less dangerous because of China’s crippling economic weakness.  From 1972 to 1989, the U.S. and China lessened their hostility considerably, but China’s power also began to grow quickly as it liberalized its economy and modernized its armed forces.  In other words, in phase one, China was hostile but weak; in phase two, more friendly but also more powerful. We have never faced a China that was both powerful and hostile.

That is exactly the scenario that may be shaping up.  China’s economic and military modernization has clearly made it one of the great powers of the world today, including nuclear weapons, a ballistic-missile capability, and aspirations for a blue-water navy.  At the same time, Chinese policymakers, like their Russian counterparts, continue to talk openly about their intent to oppose American unipolarity, revise the global order, and command a greater share of global prestige and influence.  There are several flashpoints where their revisionist aims might lead to conflict:  Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea, etc.  And U.S. relations with China are prone to regular downward spikes (as during the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, the 1996 cross-straits crisis, the accidental embassy bombing in 1999, the EP3 incident in 2001, the anti-satellite missile test in 2007, and the current trade and currency dispute, to say nothing of our annual weapons sales to Taiwan).  A militarized conflict with China is more likely today, with greater consequences, than at almost any point since the Korean War.

Some scholars are unimpressed with the supposed threats from Russia and China.  The end of the Cold War led to a plethora of theories that conventional war was dead, great power conflict was over, competition would take place through trade instead of war, the "end of history" had come, the face of war would be "new" war or a "war amongst the people," while the state was dead and non-state actors would define world politics.  These fads have led most commentators to vastly under-appreciate the persistence of the old fashioned, conventional, state-centric threat that has defined world politics for centuries:  great power rivalry.  Even if the world is changing in the ways the new-fangled theories claim (and I think those changes are overstated), it is changing much more slowly than critics appreciate.  Russia and China remain massive, powerful, and hostile to U.S. interests-like they were during the Cold War.

The "Cold War," after all, was just a name given to typical great power relations in an atypically bipolar environment.  What was unique was not the global-chessboard contest, the mutual suspicion and hostility, and the division of the world into spheres of influence.  Those features tend to characterize great power relations in any era of history.  What made the Cold War distinct was the presence of only two major powers and the ideological dimension to the contest.  In the post-Cold War world, the sharp ideological divide has been dampened, but suspicion and competition among big states remains a permanent and dangerous feature of world politics.

Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the U.S. National Security Council staff from 2007 through 2009. Twitter: @PaulDMiller2 ‏

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