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Is the Post-Cold War World Safer?

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the beginning of the end to the Cold War, which, by most accounts, made the world safer. But some analysts say lingering Cold War legacies and new threats make today's world just as dangerous.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union brought the world to the brink of war. When the Soviets installed nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962, the United States responded with a naval blockade. And most experts say the standoff could have resulted in a nuclear showdown.

The 12-day Cuban Missile Crisis ended with the dismantling of the missiles and the recognition that neither power was willing to risk a nuclear disaster.

William Keller, Director of the Mathew B. Ridgeway Center for International Security Studies at the University of Pittsburgh remembers that time. "When I grew up, we used to have our bomb shelters in our neighborhoods and had to be prepared - a whole generation, in fact, maybe two generations - for a war of all-against-all with a very unsafe environment," he says. "At one point [by the 1980s], we [i.e., the United States and the Soviet Union] had over 60,000 nuclear weapons at the ready. So the nuclear threat is greatly reduced. It has been replaced by smaller and, indeed, I think more manageable threats."

Nuclear Threat

Some people, Keller says, envision terrorists armed with nuclear weapons to be the greatest potential threat today. And some analysts worry that terrorists might succeed in stealing or smuggling nuclear material from unsecured sites across the globe. But others dismiss the notion, saying it is unlikely that terrorists would be able to acquire atomic bombs, let alone develop the capacity to deliver them in the near future.

But Gordon Clark of the Maryland-based advocacy group, Peace Action, argues that the spread of nuclear weapons technology to states like North Korea and possibly Iran, and the changing nature of conflict, make for a more dangerous world.

"What you have now is a situation where, even though it is not the same standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, there are increasing numbers of countries that have nuclear weapons, as well as possibly increased trafficking with nuclear weapons technology," says Clark. "And when you combine that with the global war on terror, the potential for some sort of catastrophic terrorist attack or nuclear exchange, that likelihood might be even greater than during the Cold War. So I think it's a different kind of threat. But the threat now is every bit as grave as it was during the Cold War."

Most experts agree that the threat of a nuclear-armed terrorist group is a real, albeit remote possibility. And Georgetown University's Derek Leebaert says it in no way compares to the Cold War danger of nuclear annihilation.

"The most destructive weapons in history - meaning H-Bombs - were previously in the hands of mega murderers, such as Stalin and Mao. It doesn't get any worse than that. Definitively the greatest massacre-makers in history, these were H-Bomb equipped terrorists," says Clark. "Today, there is a threat. But terrorism itself is a mere blip compared to Stalinism and Maoism."

In general, most experts agree that the prospect of nuclear annihilation the world faced during the Cold War has all but disappeared, although the nature of conflict has shifted from inter-state disputes to terrorism, civil war and genocide that tend to target civilians rather than states.

Cold War Legacy

A study by researchers at the University of British Columbia in Canada says the damage these conflicts cause is minimal compared to what the Cold War inflicted on the world. The report says global terrorism kills on average fewer than 3,000 people each year, compared to tens of thousands claimed in past years by inter-state wars. Moreover, the study notes a 40 percent decline in the total number of such conflicts across the globe since the end of the Cold War.

The decline, says Andrew Mack, Director of the Human Security Center at the University of British Columbia, is due to a combination of factors. "Remember two things: Firstly, we have taken two really important sources of international conflict out of the international system. There aren't any more wars about colonialism. And that was about 30 or 40 percent of all wars in the 1950s and 1960s. Secondly, the Cold War is over," says Mack. "So Cold War ideology is no longer a major cause for war. In addition to that, the U.N., despite the huge number of mistakes it's made, is getting better at stopping conflicts and is getting better at preventing them from starting again."

While many disputes have been brought to an end since the Cold War, about 30 armed conflicts still rage today around the world. Andrew Mack says some of them could escalate into regional wars.

"If you want to establish which countries are most at risk of being involved in an armed conflict, it's the very poor countries with weak state capacity - very often undemocratic or mixed regimes, very often having large numbers of young males who aren't employed," says Mack. "These are the countries that are at risk. The advanced industrialized countries, the big democracies - we are fortunate to live in a zone of peace."

Bomb shelters may be a thing of the past in the industrialized world nearly a decade and a half after the Cold War, but many analysts stress that there are still many simmering disputes that have the potential of sparking new wars.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.