The New Rules: Slouching Toward Great-Power War

The New Rules: Slouching Toward Great-Power War

Arguably the greatest strategic gift offered by America to the world over the past several decades has been our consistent willingness to maintain a high and hugely expensive entry barrier to the “market” that is great-power war: first by deterring outright war with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and then by maintaining a lopsided and unipolar military superiority in the post-Cold War period. However, a case can be made that in recent years, the greatest threat to this enduring component of global stability arises from within the United States itself -- namely, a national security establishment intent on pressing the boundaries of this heretofore rather sacrosanct responsibility.

The origins of this dangerous rethink stretch back to Ronald Reagan’s original championing of strategic missile defense. Back then, Reagan sold “Star Wars” as a way of making America, and by extension the world, “safe” from the scourge of nuclear war. But, of course, most of the world -- the Soviets included -- suspected a stealthy attempt by America to free only itself from the strictures of mutually assured destruction, the doctrine that underpinned Cold War-era nuclear deterrence. (Unsurprisingly, Moscow still holds that opinion regarding the United States’ expanding missile defense facilities in Eastern Europe.)

Such fears resurfaced in the early years of the George W. Bush administration, with the rise to power of many national security thinkers who had advocated for the U.S. to pursue “primacy” vis à vis any potential near-peer rivals as the centerpiece of its grand strategy. However, any initial anxiety was subsequently tempered by the world’s recognition that America was far too busy in its role as “global cop” to seriously re-engage the competitive space of primacy in such a way as to make a return of great-power warfare conceivable. If anything, America’s post-Sept. 11 exuberance in fulfilling its global cop role delighted both the free-riders and risers among the great-power ranks -- count China among both -- because it simplified their strategic planning and kept the American military from darkening their doorsteps in any undue manner.

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