A Post-Heroic Military Policy: The New Season of Bellicosity

The strategic culture of the Cold War combined great eagerness to accumulate weapons with great caution in their use. Fearing that any act of war might start a progression of moves and countermoves leading to catastrophe, the nuclear powers strenuously avoided any direct combat with each other. There were many wars, but the remarkably deliberate and controlled behavior that became a new norm for nations around the world deterred the thoughtless escalation of confrontation and the eruption of war through sheer miscalculation. With the end of the Cold War, the size of armed forces, military expenditures, fear of nuclear attack, and learned habits of restraint are all much diminished. Today, disputes over minor diplomatic aims or mere posturing for domestic constituencies are enough to provoke reckless displays of bellicosity or imprudence. Thus China advanced its claim of sovereignty over Taiwan in March with military exercises that were clearly meant to be as alarming as possible. For their part, Taiwan’s leaders, in their futile pursuit of U.N. membership, had earlier seen fit to score largely symbolic diplomatic points in defiance of emphatic Chinese warnings -- as if there were no danger of war, and the balance of power were nothing more than an academic construct.

Likewise, a long-standing territorial dispute between Greece and Turkey over an islet in the Aegean Sea inhabited only by about a dozen goats quickly escalated in January to a confrontation. Naval forces were deployed in dangerous proximity to each other, accompanied by much nationalist bombast from politicians on both sides and frenzied media coverage. A group of Turkish journalists deliberately exacerbated tensions by planting a flag on the ten acres of rock. When a mutual withdrawal of forces was eventually negotiated with U.S. help, Greek editorialists accused newly installed Prime Minister Costas Simitis of treason. The episode was reminiscent of the warmongering press campaigns of the last fin-de-siecle, being not merely prenuclear but pre-1914 in its raw truculence.

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