In 1974, this writer had a conversation with a British officer at an allied headquarters in Europe. The subject was the Cold War and the relative strategic stability and peace then enjoyed through Europe.
The discussion hit a number of themes. First was the notion that we enjoyed a bipolar world characterized by two relatively balanced opposing blocks. This balance — and the destructive power held by each — ensured that incentives to “start something” were few and the incentives to keep minor crises from spiraling out of control were many.
In essence, the Warsaw Pact led by the Soviet Union maintained law and order on its side of the line, and the United States and NATO did the same on our end. The British officer concluded that when the Cold War eventually ended, Europe and the world in general would shift toward less stability and increased conflict. He said there were numerous unresolved conflicts within Europe and elsewhere that were being suppressed by the Cold War standoff.
This prescient view was appreciated by few at that time. Perhaps the certainty, the stability and the lack of shooting made it inevitable that the coming strategic environment would be drastically different. The Cold War was a bit comfortable. We knew clearly who the enemy was, what he had, what he could do and what we needed to do to counter him. And in truth, our opponent had the same knowledge and certainty.
This comfort probably had something to do with our unpreparedness for anticipating just how fast the Soviet Union would collapse. In 1989, the U.S. ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany, Vernon Walters, gave a speech in which he predicted that within five years the two Germanys would be reunited. For this he was roundly and soundly criticized. But that very year, on Nov. 9, the Berlin Wall came down, and Germany was reunited well within the timeframe predicted by Walters.
In August of the following year, John Mearsheimer wrote an article in The Atlantic titled, “Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War.” The reasons he outlined were similar to those the British officer forecast in 1974. And he made a number of predictions for conflicts that have come to pass, although thankfully not all of them have. Mearsheimer worried that a bipolar world was reverting to a multipolar one, that the repressed conflicts would erupt through an evolving state system that had created powerful incentives for aggression in the past. Lost would be the stable deterrence of two fairly equal opposing blocks. He fingered the rise of hyper-nationalism as one of the future conflict triggers. He also addressed nuclear proliferation as one possible consequence of the Cold War’s end. But his worry was for Europe, not the rest of the world. Thankfully Sens. Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar foresaw this possibility and their 1991 cooperative threat reduction legislation — to secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet states — has done much so far to help minimize proliferation within Europe.
Mearsheimer clearly foresaw conflict in Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe, which has come to pass. Also his fear of hyper-nationalism was justified as Serbian, Ukrainian and Russian nationalism became the trigger for Balkan and Eastern European conflicts. But he found it difficult to predict the precise nature of the military power balance that would emerge.
So we can translate some of those happenings to current day challenges and responses. The world envisioned by the British officer and Mearsheimer has largely come to pass — suppressed rivalries emerging into conflict, lots of uncertainty on how to manage, deter and settle conflict, proliferation of sophisticated weapons into the hands of small actors unconstrained by alliance discipline and the emergence of hyper-nationalism. One of Mearsheimer’s concerns about nuclear proliferation was the increased risk of these weapons being acquired by terrorists or unstable actors. These are big worries today.
One conclusion to be drawn from all this is that we have failed to anticipate the potential for a different strategic future or the speed at which it could happen. We seem to always be surprised by events and do not understand the cultural barriers to objectives and plans that we assume will be easily accomplished and which we eventually discover to be intractable.
Most were surprised by the quick collapse of the Soviet Union and the rapid reunification of Germany. Similarly, today most have been surprised at the unanticipated speed and direction of events in North Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Georgia and Ukraine.
This continued failure of strategic anticipation is worrying. The 9/11 Commission described it as a “failure of imagination.”
Strategically, the pivot to the Pacific was a good move, but the implicit assumption that events in other places would be stable is surely unfounded. This predicted instability seems to be on the increase, and neither our strategic vision nor our attention to the requisite resources has the proper focus.
As we look to the NATO alliance, we see even less of a focus on strategy and resources. On July 7, NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen, speaking to the Atlantic Council, said he expects “all alliance leaders to commit to change course on defense spending, to reverse the decline and to back up that commitment with concrete action.” The premium has just gone up. Only four countries — the United States, the United Kingdom, Greece and Estonia — spend 2 percent of their GDP or more on defense.
And even though the United States accounts for 74 percent of NATO defense spending, we don’t spend enough to fund our strategy, and the uncertainty of our budget process drives great inefficiency. The prospects of a continuing resolution for funding in the new fiscal year have gone up dramatically with the failure of the Senate to pass any spending bills over a disagreement about “tough” amendment votes, and looking forward to fiscal year 2016, we are unlikely to have relief from sequestration.
The dilemma the nation’s civilian and military leadership must grapple with is that a revised and realistic international strategy — assuming one is found — probably will cost far more than the nation is willing to invest.
Some dismiss these concerns as defense industry whining. Even we in the defense industry can appreciate that after a decade of war, most Americans want to enjoy a “peace dividend.” But the world will not become more stable or safer by wishing. Stability starts at home with a recommitment to regular order in our basic legislative processes that we, and not our adversaries, control.
We implore political leaders to remember the bipartisan agreement on national security that characterized those stable, if dangerous, years of the Cold War. And we ask citizens to recognize that peace dividends only come with peace, and to remember the maxim that served us so well for so long: “Peace through strength.”
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