Daniel W. Drezner

These crazy IR kids today, with their wacky threat assessments…..

It’s time to admit that I’m getting old.  I feel the aches and pains from workouts a bit more keenly.  I have to Google acronyms I see on Twitter all the time.  No matter how hard I try, I just don’t feel comfortable wearing an untucked shirt with a blazer.  Only now am I discovering Alison ...

It’s time to admit that I’m getting old.  I feel the aches and pains from workouts a bit more keenly.  I have to Google acronyms I see on Twitter all the time.  No matter how hard I try, I just don’t feel comfortable wearing an untucked shirt with a blazer.  Only now am I discovering Alison Brie, which makes me way behind the curve.  Most importantly, however, I find myself reading threat assessments made by junior international relations scholars and shaking my head at these young-security-kids-with-their-having-no-memory-of-the-Cold-War. 

To explain where I’m coming from, here’s what I wrote a little more than a year ago: 

Terrorism and piracy are certainly security concerns — but they don’t compare to the Cold War. A nuclear Iran is a major regional headache, but it’s not the Cold War. A generation from now, maybe China poses as serious a threat as the Cold War Soviet Union. Maybe. That’s a generation away, however…. 

I’m about to say something that might be controversial for people under the age of 25, but here goes. You know the threats posed to the United States by a rising China, a nuclear Iran, terrorists and piracy? You could put all of them together and they don’t equal the perceived threat posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

I’ll stand by that statement, and I’m not the only one here at FP to believe it.  Over the past week, however, I’m seeing some young whippersnappers junior scholars evince a different estimate of threats to U.S. national security. 

Over at Shadow Government, Paul Miller has a four-part series  — count ’em, one, two, three, four — of blog posts arguing that the world is a more dangerous place now than before.  He sums up his argument in this concluding section

Essentially, the United States thus faces two great families of threats today:  first, the nuclear-armed authoritarian powers, of which there are at least twice as many as there were during the Cold War; second, the aggregate consequences of state failure and the rise of non-state actors in much of the world, which is a wholly new development since the Cold War.  On both counts, the world is more dangerous than it was before 1989.  Essentially take the Cold War, add in several more players with nukes, and then throw in radicalized Islam, rampant state failure, and the global economic recession, and you have today.

I recognize that the world doesn’t feel as dangerous as it did during the Cold War.  During the Cold War we all knew about the threat and lived with a constant awareness-usually shoved to the back of ours minds to preserve our sanity-that we might die an instantaneous firey death at any moment.  We no longer feel that way. 

Our feelings are wrong.  The Cold War engaged our emotions more because it was simple, easily understood, and, as an ideological contest, demanded we take sides and laid claim to our loyalties.  Today’s environment is more complex and many-sided and so it is harder to feel the threat the same way we used to.  Nonetheless, the danger is real. 

Meh.  Actually, meh squared. 

To be fair to Miller, I do think he is getting at something that has changed over time during the post-Cold War era.  First, the threat envorinment does seem higher now than twenty years ago, as the Soviet Union was about to collapse.  China is more economically powerful, Russia is more revanchist, North, Korea, Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons, the barriers to entry for non-state actors to wreak havoc has gone up.  The likelihood of a conventional great power war is lower, but the likelihood of a serious attack on American soil seems higher than in late 1991.  So in terms of trend, it does feel like the world is less safe. 

What’s also changed, however, is the tight coupling of the Cold War security environment (ironically, just as the security environment has become more loosely coupled, the global political economy has become more tightly coupled).  Because the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were such implacable adversaries and because they knew  it, the possibility of a small dispute — Berlin, Cuba, a downed Korean airliner — escalating very quickly was ever-present.  The possibility of an accident triggering all-out nuclear war was also higher than was realized at the time.  The current threat environment is more loosely interconnected, in that a small conflict seems less likely to immediately ramp up into another Cuban Missile Crisis.  Indeed, the events of the past year support that point.  Saudi Arabia essentially invaded Bahrain, and Iran did…. very little about it.  The United States deployed special forces into the heart of Pakistan’s military complex.  The aftermath of that is undeniably uglier, but it’s not we-are-at-DEFCON-ONE kind of ugly.  Miller might be more accurate in saying that there is a greater chance of a security dust-up in today’s complex threat environment, but there’s a much lower likelihood of those dust-ups spiraling out of control. 

In Miller’s calculations, it seems that any country with a nuclear weapon constitutes an equal level of threat.  But that’s dubious on multiple grounds.  First, none of the emerging nuclear states have anywhere close to a second-strike capability.  If they were to use their nukes against the United States, I think they know that there’s an excellent chance that they don’t survive the counterstrike.  Second, the counter Miller provides is that these authoritarian leaders are extra-super-crazy.  I’m not going to defend either the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or Kim the Younger, but are these leaders more crazy than either Mao or Stalin or Kim Jong Il?  Those are three of the worst leaders in history — and none of them came close to using nuclear weapons.   Finally, the Pakistan case is instructive — even after getting nukes, and even after getting very cozy with radical terrorist groups, that country has refrained from escalating hostilities with India to the point of another general war. 

As for the non-state threats, they are disturbing, but I’d posit that on this front the United States really is safer now than it was a decade ago.  The only organization capable of launching a coordinated terrorist strike against the United States is now a husk of its former self.  Indeed, I’d wager that Miller’s emotions, or his memory of 9/11, are getting in the way of dispassionate analysis. 

In essence, Miller conflates the number of possible threats with a greater magnitude of threats.  I agree that there are more independent threats to the United States out there at present, but combined, they don’t stack up to the Soviet threat.  To put it another way, I prefer avoiding a swarm of mosquitoes to one really ravenous bear. 

In related exaggerated threat analysis, Matthew Kroenig argues in Foreign Affairs that an airstrike on Iran might be the best of a bad set of options in dealing with Iran.  This has set poor Stephen Walt around the bend in response, as op-eds advocating an attack on Iran are wont to do

I’ve generally found both sides of the "attack Iran" debate to be equally dyspeptic, but in this case I do find Kroenig’s logic to be a bit odd.  Here’s his arguments for why a nuclear Iran is bad and containment is more problematic than a military attack: 

Some states in the region are doubting U.S. resolve to stop the program and are shifting their allegiances to Tehran. Others have begun to discuss launching their own nuclear initiatives to counter a possible Iranian bomb. For those nations and the United States itself, the threat will only continue to grow as Tehran moves closer to its goal. A nuclear-armed Iran would immediately limit U.S. freedom of action in the Middle East. With atomic power behind it, Iran could threaten any U.S. political or military initiative in the Middle East with nuclear war, forcing Washington to think twice before acting in the region. Iran’s regional rivals, such as Saudi Arabia, would likely decide to acquire their own nuclear arsenals, sparking an arms race. To constrain its geopolitical rivals, Iran could choose to spur proliferation by transferring nuclear technology to its allies — other countries and terrorist groups alike. Having the bomb would give Iran greater cover for conventional aggression and coercive diplomacy, and the battles between its terrorist proxies and Israel, for example, could escalate. And Iran and Israel lack nearly all the safeguards that helped the United States and the Soviet Union avoid a nuclear exchange during the Cold War — secure second-strike capabilities, clear lines of communication, long flight times for ballistic missiles from one country to the other, and experience managing nuclear arsenals. To be sure, a nuclear-armed Iran would not intentionally launch a suicidal nuclear war. But the volatile nuclear balance between Iran and Israel could easily spiral out of control as a crisis unfolds, resulting in a nuclear exchange between the two countries that could draw the United States in, as well.

These security threats would require Washington to contain Tehran. Yet deterrence would come at a heavy price. To keep the Iranian threat at bay, the United States would need to deploy naval and ground units and potentially nuclear weapons across the Middle East, keeping a large force in the area for decades to come. Alongside those troops, the United States would have to permanently deploy significant intelligence assets to monitor any attempts by Iran to transfer its nuclear technology. And it would also need to devote perhaps billions of dollars to improving its allies’ capability to defend themselves. This might include helping Israel construct submarine-launched ballistic missiles and hardened ballistic missile silos to ensure that it can maintain a secure second-strike capability. Most of all, to make containment credible, the United States would need to extend its nuclear umbrella to its partners in the region, pledging to defend them with military force should Iran launch an attack (emphasis added).

OK, first, exactly who is bandwagoning with Iran?  Seriously, who?  Kroenig provides no evidence, and I’m scratching my head to think of any data points.  The SCAF regime in Egypt has been a bit more friendly, but Turkey’s distancing is far more significant and debilitating for Tehran’s grand strategy.  Iran’s sole Arab ally is in serious trouble, and its own economy is faltering badly.  The notion that time is on Iran ‘s side seems badly off. 

Second, Kroenig presume that a nuclear Iran would be more aggressive in the region and more likely to have a nuclear exchange with Iran.  I will again point to India/Pakistan.  Despite similar religious divides, and despite the presence of pliable non-state actors, those two countries have successfully kept a nuclear peace.  Kroenig might have an argument that Israel/Iran is different, but it’s not in this essay.   Indeed, the bolded section contradicts Kroenig’s own argument — if Iran is not prepared to use its nuclear weapons, it seems unlikely that it will escalate crises to the point where its bluff is called.  If Kroenig’s own scholarship suggests that America’s nuclear superiority would still be an effective deterrent, then I’m not sure why he portrays the Iran threat in such menacing terms. 

There’s more, but this post is long enough anyway.  Both Kroenig and Miller are correct to highlight current threats.  But, to put it gently, until all of these threats, combined, can cause this to happen in under an hour, I’m sleeping soundly. 

Am I missing anything? 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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