In 1974, this writer had a conversation with a British officer at an allied headquarters in Europe. The subject was the Cold War and the relative strategic stability and peace then enjoyed through Europe.
The discussion hit a number of themes. First was the notion that we enjoyed a bipolar world characterized by two relatively balanced opposing blocks. This balance--and the destructive power held by each--ensured that incentives to "start something" were few and the incentives to keep minor crises from spiraling out of control were many.
In essence, the Warsaw Pact led by the Soviet Union maintained law and order on its side of the line, and the United States and NATO did the same on our end. The British officer concluded that when the Cold War eventually ended, Europe and the world in general would shift toward less stability and increased conflict. He said there were numerous unresolved conflicts within Europe and elsewhere that were being suppressed by the Cold War standoff.
This prescient view was appreciated by few at that time. Perhaps the certainty, the stability and the lack of shooting made it inevitable that the coming strategic environment would be drastically different. The Cold War was a bit comfortable. We knew dearly who the enemy was, what he had, what he could do and what we needed to do to counter him. And in truth, our opponent had the same knowledge and certainty.
This comfort probably had something to do with our unpreparedness for anticipating just how fast the Soviet Union would collapse. In 1989, the U.S. ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany, Vernon Walters, gave a speech in which he predicted that within five years the two Germanys would be reunited. For this he was roundly and soundly criticized. But that very year, on Nov. 9, the Berlin Wall came down, and Germany was reunited well within the timeframe predicted by Walters.
In August of the following year, John Mearsheimer wrote an article in The Atlantic titled, "Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War." The reasons he outlined were similar to those the British officer forecast in 1974. And he made a number of predictions for conflicts that have come to pass, although thankfully not all of them have. Mearsheimer worried that a bipolar world was reverting to a multipolar one, that the repressed conflicts would erupt through an evolving state system that had created powerful incentives for aggression in the past. Lost would be the stable deterrence of two fairly equal...