Policy Analysis No. 332

Tilting at Windmills: Post-Cold War Military Threats to U.S. Security

By Ivan Eland
February 8, 1999

Executive Summary

Serious military threats to U.S. security have diminished dramatically since the end of the Cold War. The threat from conventional Russian military forces has all but disintegrated and would take many years to reconstitute. China would take 20 to 30 years to transform its bloated and obsolete military into a major threat to U.S. vital interests. The militaries in both nations should be watched, but they may never develop into credible threats.

In addition, the U.S. government tends to overstate regional threats (for example, Iraq and North Korea) because it still sees them through Cold War lenses. A rival superpower no longer exists to back surrogates or to exploit potential regional conflicts. There is no longer any danger that Middle East oil or the Korean peninsula will be controlled by the Soviet Union. Before the Persian Gulf War, prominent economists from across the political spectrum noted that the small costs (in higher oil prices) to the U.S. economy of Saudi Arabia’s potential fall to Iraq did not warrant American military action. Saudi Arabia and the other oil-rich Persian Gulf states have combined economies that greatly exceed those of the weakened Iraq or Iran. Likewise, South Korea’s economy surpasses that of North Korea. Those nations can afford to defend themselves and should be weaned from U.S. protection.

One threat that is becoming more severe in the post-Cold War world is the proliferation of chemical, biological, nuclear, and missile technology. The probability of a retaliatory strike on the U.S. homeland by rogue states or terrorist groups using such weapons, however, can be reduced by ending unneeded and provocative U.S. military intervention abroad.

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Ivan Eland is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.