Sunday, April 1, 2012

Perspective on Questions of National Security

I first got interested in international politics in the mid-1980s. Back then, the Cold War was the question in international relations. This was partly because we were Americans, and the Soviets were our chief concern, and this caused us to overlook all sorts of other issues going on around the world (poverty and development, growing environmental problems, regional conflicts) that weren't related to the Cold War rivalry. But it was also because the question at the center of the Cold War was fundamental: the survival of the human race or its extinction in a nuclear war.

It seems almost quaint now, but the IR field back then was dominated by the question of interstate war and the logic of nuclear deterrence and escalation. We argued about arms control and deterrent force structures and the nature of crises because we had the feeling that if leaders got any of these things wrong, we could all die. And we weren't wrong about that - it was true.

I just redrafted the syllabus for my international conflict class the other day - a course I've been teaching, in one form or another, for 15 years. Like everything else, academic fashions change alongside broader social concerns. Nobody writes about nuclear war, or even interstate war, much anymore. There's a lot about terrorism, and conflicts over resources, and refugees, and a host of other things. In a sense, that's as it should be - although I do have to remind my students that the nuclear weapons are still there in abundance, even if we don't do duck-and-cover drills anymore.

What I find more interesting than the change in scholarship, however, is the lack of change among politicians. In this election year, presidential candidates have been falling over each other in an outbidding effort to be the "tough guy" who can handle the life-threatening crisis of the day. Their chief concern? Iran.

Iran? Seriously? Although the level of rhetoric that accompanies these thundering speeches about how Iran threatens the stability of the world is little changed from the rhetoric 40 years ago about the Soviets, it no longer makes sense. The fate of the human race does not hang in the balance. A conflict with Iran - even a nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel, the worst scenario being discussed - would be an epic tragedy, but would not come close to threatening life across the planet as we know it. It's not that there aren't high stakes here - they're just not nearly as high as they used to be.

So the next time you hear some politician shouting about the "greatest foreign policy crisis of this generation" or some other such nonsense, pause for a moment. Hit the mute button. And recall that there was a time, not so long ago, when the threats were a heck of a lot more serious. Then turn the sound back on and continue laughing at the unintended comedy show of politicians who have lost all perspective.

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