Assessing International Threats During and After the Cold War

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Threat assessment is a key element in carrying out foreign policy — or life, for that matter. It involves determining what the dangers out there are and deciding what needs to be done to deal with them. For the most part, this has been done badly by the United States for national security threats at least in the period since World War II. Not all threats that could potentially have been seized upon have evoked anxiety. However, every threat in the last several decades that has come to be accepted as significant has then been unwisely inflated.1

This essay first explores two important instances of threat inflation. One concerns the exaggeration during the Cold War about the degree to which international Communism presented a direct military threat as well as a subversive one. The other assesses the exaggeration after the Cold War, and particularly after 9/11, about the degree to which international terrorism presented a threat.

The essay then concludes with a comparison of the Cold War with the current international situation in which China and Russia are perceived as presenting a substantial threat to U.S. security. As with the Cold War, it appears that we are making the same mistake: becoming transfixed by threats that either do not exist or are likely destined to self‐​destruct.

During the Cold War, American foreign and defense policy was devoted to deterring and to containing the threat deemed to be presented by international Communism as based in the Soviet Union and China. Both policy efforts, for different reasons, were misguided. Deterrence was not needed because there was nothing to deter, and containment was successful only when it lapsed.

Although the Soviet Union did subscribe to an aggressive agenda that involved support for class warfare, revolutionary civil wars, and subversion in capitalist countries, it was extremely wary of any experience that might lead to anything like the Second World War, whether embellished by nuclear weapons or not. Moreover, the Soviets were well‐​poised to observe that major wars had the potential to unseat the regime in Moscow: that is what happened in the First World War and nearly happened again in the Second. In fact, as Robert Jervis observes, “The Soviet archives have yet to reveal any serious plans for unprovoked aggression against Western Europe, not to mention a first strike against the United States.” And, after researching those archives, Vojtech Mastny concludes that “All Warsaw Pact scenarios presumed a war started by NATO” and that “The strategy of nuclear deterrence [was] irrelevant to deterring a major war that the enemy did not wish to launch in the first place.“2

It could be argued, of course, that this perspective stemmed from American nuclear deterrence policy. However, those who would so contend need to demonstrate that the Soviets ever had the desire to risk provoking anything like the catastrophe they had just endured (in which an estimated 26 million Soviet citizens died). Moreover, they were under the spell of a theory that said they would eventually come to rule the world in a historically‐​inevitable process to which they would contribute merely by safely inspiring, encouraging, and aiding like‐​minded revolutionaries abroad.

If the policy of deterrence sought to solve a problem that didn’t exist, the associated policy of containment at least sought to deal with one that did.

The quintessential intellectual presentation of containment policy contended that “The main element of any U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long‐​term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” In the long run, it was hoped, the Soviets, frustrated in their drive for territory and expanded authority, would become less hostile and more accommodating. In fact, it concluded, there was a “strong” possibility that Soviet power “bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced.“3 The policy was to impel the United States into a costly “test‐​case” war in Vietnam against an enemy that proved to be essentially undefeatable.4

In the end, the problem containment was fabricated to deal with went away only when the policy itself lapsed. Starting in 1975, international Communism did expand markedly. Three countries — Cambodia, South Vietnam, and Laos — abruptly toppled into the Communist camp in that year. Then, partly out of fear of repeating the Vietnam experience, the United States went into a sort of containment funk: it effectively watched from the sidelines as the Soviet Union, in what seems in retrospect to have been remarkably like a fit of absent mindedness, opportunistically gathered a set of third world countries into its imperial embrace: Angola in 1976, Mozambique and Ethiopia in 1977, South Yemen and Afghanistan in 1978, Grenada and Nicaragua in 1979.

The Soviets at first were quite gleeful about these acquisitions — the “correlation of forces,” as they called it, had decisively and most agreeably shifted in their direction.5 However, almost all the new acquisitions soon became economic and political basket cases, fraught with dissension, financial mismanagement, and civil warfare, and turned expectantly to the Soviet Union for maternal warmth and sustenance. Most disastrous for the Soviet Union was its experience in Afghanistan where it felt compelled to intervene militarily in 1979.

There were other problems. The Soviets’ empire in Eastern Europe became a severe economic drain. And the system was fundamentally corrupt and filled with disastrous misspending and mismanagement.

The Soviet Union soon came to realize that it would have been better off contained.

In the end, the lapsing of containment helped Communism to self‐​destruct and that led directly to the end of the Cold War when an exhausted and much over‐​extended Soviet Union abandoned its expansionist ideology. The policy of containment, then, was logically flawed. The best policy would not have been to contain it, but to give it enough rope — to let it expand until it reached the point of terminal overstretch — which is essentially what happened.

In the decade after the Cold War, a similar process of threat identification took place as problems previously considered to be of minor, or at least of secondary, concern were promoted. Anxieties about international terrorism substantially increased during the 1990s and were set into highest relief with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Extrapolating wildly from 9/11, a terrorist event ten times more destructive than any other in history, terrorism of that sort has repeatedly been taken to present a direct, even existential, threat to the United States or to the West — or even to the world system or to civilization as we know it.6 Wild extrapolations have precipitated costly antiterrorism and antiproliferation wars and huge increases in security spending. In these ventures, trillions of dollars have been squandered and well over two hundred thousand people have perished, including more than twice as many Americans as were killed on 9/11.7 There has been a tendency to see these exercises as misguided elements of a coherent plan to establish a “liberal world order” or to apply “liberal hegemony.“8 However, the overwhelming impetus was far more banal: to get the bastards responsible for 9/11.

Islamist terrorism in the United States has killed some six people per year since 9/11, and far more people in Europe perished yearly at the hands of terrorists in most years in the 1970s and 1980s.9 But there has nonetheless been a tendency to continue to inflate al-Qaeda’s importance and effectiveness.

In fact, al‐​Qaeda Central has done remarkably little since it got horribly lucky in 2001. It has served as something of an inspiration to some Muslim extremists, has done some training, seems to have contributed a bit to the Taliban’s far larger insurgency in Afghanistan, and may have participated in a few terrorist acts in Pakistan. It has also issued a considerable number of videos filled with empty, self‐​infatuated, and essentially delusional threats.10 Even isolated and under siege, it is difficult to see why al‐​Qaeda could not have perpetrated attacks at least as costly and shocking as the shooting rampages (organized by others) that took place in Mumbai in 2008, in Paris in 2015, or in Orlando and Berlin in 2016. And, although billions of foreigners have entered legally into the United States since 2001, not one of these, it appears, has been an agent smuggled in by al‐​Qaeda. The exaggeration of terrorist capacities has been greatest in the many overstated assessments of their ability to develop nuclear weapons. In this, it has been envisioned that, because al‐​Qaeda operatives used box cutters so effectively on 9/11, they would, although under siege, soon apply equal talents in science and engineering to fabricate nuclear weapons and then detonate them on American cities.11

It is possible to argue, of course, that the damage committed by jihadists in the United States since 9/11 is so low because “American defensive measures are working,” as Peter Bergen puts it.12 However, although security measures should be given some credit, it is not at all clear that they have reduced the amount of terrorism significantly. There have been scores of terrorist plots rolled up in the US by authorities but, looked at carefully, the culprits left on their own do not seem to have had the capacity to increase the death toll very much.13 As Brian Jenkins puts it, “Their numbers remain small, their determination limp, and their competence poor.“14 Nor can security measures have deterred terrorism. Some targets, such as airliners, may have been taken off the list, but potential terrorist targets remain legion.15 To a considerable degree, terrorism is rare because as Bruce Schneier puts it bluntly, “there isn’t much of a threat of terrorism to defend against.“16

In recent years, there has been increasing anxiety about the rise of China as a challenger country or about the assertiveness of Russia backed by its large nuclear arsenal. Both concerns are overblown.

After a remarkable period of economic growth, China has come to rank second in the world in gross domestic product (though worse than 70th in per capita GDP). In a globalized economy, it is of course better for the United States and for just about everyone if China (or any other country) becomes more prosperous — for one thing, they can now buy more of our stuff (including debt). However, eschewing such economic logic, there has been a notable tendency to vision threat in China’s rapidly‐​increasing wealth. There is a fear that China, as it becomes ever wealthier, will invest a considerable amount in military hardware and will consequently come to feel impelled to target the United States or to carry out undesirable military adventures somewhere and particularly in America’s “hegemonic” hemispheric neighborhood.17

From time to time, China may be emboldened to throw its weight around in its presumed area of influence. But it does not seem to harbor Hitler‐​style ambitions about extensive conquest as even the alarmists acknowledge. A warning by Richard Betts bears consideration: “No evidence suggests that Chinese leaders will have an interest in naked conquest…The most likely danger lies in the situation in which action China sees as defensive and legitimate appears aggressive to Washington.“18 As Chas Freeman points out, “China’s rise is a real, not imaginary, challenge to the status quo and to U.S. leadership,” but he stresses that “it is mainly economic, not military and it can be peaceful or not, as our interaction with it determines.“19

China seems to have decided to become more assertive about its claims in the South China Sea, and it has disputes with its neighbors over fishing areas there.20 To deem these developments to be some sort of global threat is excessive. Even if China were to come to imagine that it controls that body of water, it will still have an intense interest in the free flow of ships through it. And fishing disputes have been around ever since the invention of fish and of people (whichever came second) and are more nearly the inspiration for farce than for cosmic Sturm und Drang.

There is also the issue of China’s oft‐​stated desire to incorporate (or re‐​incorporate) Taiwan into its territory. World leaders should sensibly keep their eyes on this, but it is most likely that the whole problem will be worked out over the course of time without armed conflict. At any rate, the Chinese strongly stress that their perspective on this issue is very long‐​term.

In addition, Freeman and others point to a large number of domestic problems that are likely to arrest the attention of the Chinese leaders in future years: environmental devastation, slowing growth, a rapidly aging population, a shrinking labor force, enormous levels of industrial overproduction, accumulating local debt, a still‐​inadequate social safety network, an increasingly oppressive political system. It also has problems with restive populations in Hong Kong and elsewhere, and now, perhaps, with the aftermath of the 2020 corona virus pandemic which originated in China. There is also a monumental problem with corruption characterized by collusive economic looting and privilege‐​seeking by officials, businessmen, and gangsters.21

Meanwhile, pollution kills 4000 Chinese per day.22 Is also maintains a massive program, employing some two million people, to censor the internet.23 As Jon Lindsay puts the dilemma, “economic openness promotes growth, but China sees political openness as a threat to its legitimacy.“24

On top of this, China’s (or President Xi Jinping’s) elaborate Belt and Road Initiative is increasingly showing signs of being not only a case of overreach, but one of “strategic disfunction,” notes Tanner Green. It has failed to deliver either returns for investors (including state‐​run banks) or political returns for China, and “persists only because it is the favored brainchild of an authoritarian leader living in an echo chamber.“25

China’s many problems suggest that Paul Kennedy’s estimation from 2010 still holds: “As to a rising China becoming a new global hegemon, I have the most serious doubts; its internal weaknesses are immense, and, externally, it is likely to trip over its own shoelaces.“26

Concerns about Russia have greatly escalated since its armed dispute with neighboring Ukraine in 2014. The result was the peaceful, if extortionary, transfer of Crimea, a large peninsular chunk of Ukraine, to Russia, and then a sporadic, and ultimately stalemated, civil war in Ukraine in which ethnic Russian secessionist groups in a portion of Ukraine’s east were supported by Russia.

The (rather bizarre) Ukraine episode, however, seems to be a one‐​off — a unique, opportunistic, and probably under‐​considered escapade that proved to be unexpectedly costly to the perpetrators.27 Massive extrapolation is unjustified and ill‐​advised. In particular, the notion that Putin’s Russia is on an expansionary mission, so commonly voiced at the time of the 2014 events, seems to have little substance. It has not even sought to officially annex separatist areas in eastern Ukraine.28 And if the goal of Russia was to keep Ukraine from seeking to embrace the West while establishing a pliant pro‐​Russian regime in Kiev, the effort failed miserably.

Economically, Russia — with its estimated 1.5 percent of the global gross domestic product — is a dwarf.29 And it suffers from multiple problems. Its GDP growth has been weak, and, like China, it has devolved into a form of crony capitalism where property rights are insecure, capital flight is common, corruption is rampant, and economic stagnation is likely.30

Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping already preside over vast contiguous empires of the kind that Hitler fought to fabricate, and both are trading states and need a stable and essentially congenial international environment to flourish.31 Most importantly, except for China’s claim to Taiwan, neither seems to harbor Hitler‐​like dreams of extensive expansion by military means.

Both do seem to want to overcome what they view as past humiliations — ones going back to the opium war of 1839 in the case of China and to the collapse of the Soviet empire and then of the Soviet Union in 1989–91 in the case of Russia. That scarcely seems to represent a threat. The United States, after all, continually declares itself to be the indispensable nation. If the United States is allowed to wallow in such self‐​important, childish, essentially meaningless, and decidedly fatuous proclamations, why should other nations be denied the opportunity to emit similar inconsequential rattlings?

The current wariness about, and hostility toward, Russia and China is sometimes said to constitute “a new Cold War.” There are, of course, considerable differences. In particular, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union — indeed the whole international Communist movement — was under the sway of a grand theory that explicitly advocated the destruction of capitalism and probably of democracy, and by violence to the degree required. Neither Russia nor China today sports such cosmic goals or is enamored of such destructive methods.

However, the United States was strongly inclined during the Cold War to wildly inflate the threat that it imagined the Communist adversary to present. The current “new Cold War” is thus in an important respect quite a bit like the old one: it is an expensive, substantially militarized, and often hysterical campaign to deal with threats that do not exist or are likely to self‐​destruct.

John Mueller

John Mueller is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He is also a member of the political science department and senior research scientist with the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at Ohio State University.

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