Shadow Government

How Dangerous is the World? Part III

In my previous two posts I began my argument that the world today is actually more dangerous than it was during the Cold War.  I argued that the basic threat of great power rivalry with China and Russia has not gone away and, in the case of China, has increased. My second argument is that, ...

Feng Li/Getty Images
Feng Li/Getty Images

In my previous two posts I began my argument that the world today is actually more dangerous than it was during the Cold War.  I argued that the basic threat of great power rivalry with China and Russia has not gone away and, in the case of China, has increased.

My second argument is that, in addition to Russia and China, we now face up to three new entrants in the lists of authoritarian nuclear powers hostile to the United States:  North Korea, Iran, and possibly Pakistan.  During the Cold War the United States faced only one or two hostile nuclear powers at a time.  We may soon be facing five. And the new nuclear powers are likely to present a direct threat to the American homeland in the near future, similar to the threat posed by the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War.

North Korea and Pakistan have nuclear weapons (which they didn’t during the Cold War) and Iran is almost certainly going to get them.  North Korea and Iran are avowed enemies of the United States; Pakistan is teetering on the brink.  All three states have invested in medium and long-range ballistic missiles that could hit U.S. allies and, in all likelihood, will soon be able to produce missiles that could hit the U.S. homeland.

It is true that North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is probably very small, and Iran is likely to have a small arsenal for a few years yet.  But they only need a few warheads to pose a major threat to the United States.  The Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear warheads, but after the first hundred or so each additional nuclear weapon doesn’t add much more threat to the United States:  you can already wipe out our entire civilization several times over.  Given a few more years, Iran and North Korea will both probably have built enough warheads and developed the long-range ballistic missiles to pose an existential threat to the United States equal to that posed by the Soviet Union’s and China’s nuclear arsenals during the Cold War.

In addition to their nuclear capabilities, all three states have some of the largest conventional forces in the world today.  It is true that all three countries are poor and lack a sophisticated military-industrial base, and Iran’s and North Korea’s conventional militaries have been debilitated by sanctions.  I don’t doubt our ability to win a hypothetical conventional war with any state.  But because of their sheer size, even strictly conventional, non-nuclear wars with Iran, North Korea, or (heaven forbid) Pakistan would surely be much more costly in lives and treasure than anything since Vietnam, and possible since World War II.

Additionally, because of their technological inferiority, the Iranians and North Koreans have already worked to level the playing field by their greater investment in unconventional and terrorist capabilities far superior to what the Soviets and Chinese invested in during the Cold War.  The IRGC is probably the most sophisticated terrorist organization in world history, and the North Koreans have a long track record of terrorist attacks largely against their southern neighbor.

While we can surely defeat either state in war, I do doubt our ability to occupy or rebuild a post-war North Korea or Iran, which hugely complicates foreign policy planning.  Assuming the IRGC and the North Korean equivalent have studied Iraq and Afghanistan, they could be even more effective than the Ba’athist die-hards and AQI were.  It is not at all clear to me that the United States is currently capable of defeating Iran or North Korea and following up a war with a successful occupation and reconstruction campaign.  My doubt is based on a lot of things, including the state of our civilian reconstruction capabilities, Congress’ skepticism about the usefulness of feasibility of these campaigns, and the public’s obsession with deficits.  But for whatever reason, if we went to war with North Korea or Iran, we might successfully blow a lot of stuff up and then leave-essentially repeating the mistake of World War I.  This would end up making the world even more dangerous, not less.

Finally, as I mentioned in my first post, war with Iran or North Korea is more likely than war with the Soviet Union or China was because those regimes appear to be less rational, less predictable, and less responsive to deterrence.  You don’t have to believe that their leaders are medically insane or immune to rationality to recognize that they demonstrate less responsible state behavior than the norm.  I grant that China’s Cultural Revolution and Stalin’s purges were bouts of insanity, but they were aberrations, not the norm.  By contrast, North Korea’s bout of insanity has lasted sixty years and counting.

Similarly, Iran is particularly troubling because of its ideology.  The Soviet Union’s ideology was threatening because it was globally expansionist, which made it compete with the United States for power and influence everywhere it could-a defining feature of what made the Cold War so dangerous.  Iran has a similarly expansionist and aggressive ideology-militant Islamism-today that it did not have for most of the Cold War.  Iran is not as powerful as the Soviet Union was, but if/when it acquires nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles, it will have dramatically shrunk the gap.

All told, we are facing much of the same threat we faced during the Cold War, plus new, comparable threats from Iran, North Korea, and possibly Pakistan.  In my next post I’ll take up the new threats, often overstated but still real, of state failure, rogue actors, and terrorism.

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 ‏