Security Lessons from the Cold War

RISKING THE INSTITUTIONS OF VICTORY

No one knows what security challenges the United States will face in the next century. To meet the challenges of the Cold War -- America's longest and most complex struggle -- the United States created a set of institutions and societal relationships that let it prevail without sacrificing its way of life. As the new century approaches, those very institutions and relationships are at risk.

Many now believe that because of America's towering technological advantages, which were displayed so effectively in the 1991 confrontation with Iraq, no enemy will dare oppose U.S. forces with conventional weapons. Instead, future attacks will likely be "asymmetric," involving terrorism, sabotaging U.S. communications and financial systems, and poisoning cities' water supplies. Such assaults cannot defeat the United States but may cause panic and make appeasement tempting.

The interest in asymmetric threats reflects not only an awareness of the United States' relative strength but also a recognition that victory in war can stem from the ability to surprise as well as from the exercise of power. During the Cold War, the U.S. national security system overcame many more symmetrical than asymmetrical surprises. The Soviets' first nuclear tests, the invasion of South Korea, the Chinese entry into the Korean War, Sputnik, and the downing of Gary Powers' u-2 spy plane -- to name just a few -- were all symmetrical actions, but surprises nonetheless. America's sustained ability to meet all types of challenges and to generate some surprises of its own was obviously important to its Cold War triumph. This ability will be no less important to America's future security, which makes the rush to dismantle the institutional framework that underlay the Cold War victory so foolishly dangerous.

For many policymakers, the answer to these and any other security threats is technology and more technology -- an especially appealing prospect because the relevant technologies are being developed rapidly by thriving commercial markets without special government attention. U.S. military actions, in this view, will be executed remotely and precisely, for the most part avoiding casualties among U.S. forces and the innocent. High-tech advocates also argue that precision strikes will avert the need to mobilize U.S. society to any significant extent.

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