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What Can the Cold War Can Teach Us About the War on Terror?


During the Cold War era – the four decades that followed World War Two – there were two superpowers in the world, the United States and the Soviet Union, each with the capacity to destroy the other. The prospect of nuclear devastation made its avoidance the undisputed top priority for both Washington and Moscow.

Jonathan Stevenson wonders if that strategy will work in America's war on terror. The strategic analyst tackles that question in his new book, Thinking Beyond the Unthinkable: Harnessing Doom from the Cold War to the War on Terror.

Stevenson says the sudden end of the Cold War with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 did not prepare strategists to deal with the new threats of the post-Cold War era.

The Soviet Union seemed so powerful and immovable that it was difficult for even the great strategists to imagine a world without the Cold War," he says. "And the rise of non-state groups as strategic threats was so unanticipated that the strategists just didn't think in advance about how the military strategy would have to change in the post-Cold War world."

Stevenson, a professor of Strategic Studies at the Naval War College, explains that during the Cold War, the threat of mutual assured destruction kept the superpowers in check. Certainly, he says, the theory still applies to Russia, new nuclear regimes like North Korea, potentially Iran, as well as between India and Pakistan. But in his book, Thinking Beyond the Unthinkable, he argues that nuclear deterrence does not extend in any obvious way to trans-national Islamist terrorist groups like al-Qaeda.

"Islamist terrorists, for instance, like al-Qaeda, don't pose any real nuclear threat," he says. "So, holding the vast American military arsenal, even recruiting some conventional weapons, over al-Qaeda is a little like holding a shotgun on a horse fly. It wouldn't discourage the bug from biting. So we need to establish an arsenal that includes a lot more so-called soft power than what we've been using so far."

Soft power includes diplomacy, intelligence and law enforcement. Deterrence, Stevenson adds, can be a soft power weapon. But it only works, he points out, if the adversary has something of value to be threatened. So he suggests militant non-state groups should be encouraged to participate in non-violent state activities… like politics.

"Some of those groups, and I'm thinking particularly about Hezbollah in Lebanon as a good example, developed political power and legitimacy through the non-violent participation in politics that they have become reluctant to relinquish through violence," he says. "Hezbollah may seem very threatening now, but they are actually much less violently inclined than they were in 1980s, precisely because they have gotten a lot more political traction in Lebanon."

The other lesson America should draw from its Cold War experience, Stevenson says, is the organization of efficient think tanks that are able to assess and analyze new threats.

"Organizationally, the great Cold War strategists were incubated by government-linked think tanks, especially the RAND Corporation, through which they became intimately acquainted with the strategic challenges the government faced but were allowed to think expansively about solving them outside the chaos of day to day policy execution," he says.

While many of those think tanks still exist, Stevenson says "they have beome constrained by their closeness to the Defense Department." He says it's time to create a new think tank to deal with the new strategic problems and approach them in a broader way.

He also recommends that Washington focus its international efforts on those "soft power weapons" – law enforcement, intelligence and diplomacy – rather than on direct military action.

"It will involve cautiously, and I think probably fairly slowly, withdrawing from Iraq… a refocusing on Afghanistan in a way that stabilizes that country and makes it harder for al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which are resurgent in the tribal areas of Pakistan, to get traction in central Asia again.

Stevenson also recommends "re-immersing ourselves in conflict resolution, in particular with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And he suggests focusing on "other diplomatic efforts [that] involve re-building and re-consolidating alliances that are important in keeping an eye on terrorist activity and doing so in a way that doesn't antagonize Muslims more broadly."

He warns that the war on terror should not distract America from the other geo-political developments that actually seem, in some ways, similar to Cold War issues.

"Our preoccupation with the campaign against al-Qaeda and global terrorism and our immersion in Iraq and the way in which it's made us distracted and overstretched, both diplomatically and militarily, has made us myopic," he says. "It has made us perhaps too dismissive of the possibility, for example, that Russia is behaving like an emerging great power."

Stevenson says Russia's oil wealth and Europe's dependency on that oil "has given it much freedom of action." He adds that "a greater U.S. presence in Central Asia has, at least to the perception of Moscow, impinged on an area that it still considers its sphere of influence."

Strategic analyst Jonathan Stevenson says he hopes the lessons learned from the end the Cold War era will help a new generation of strategists navigate and eventually end the era of terror.

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