- The Washington Times - Monday, November 9, 2009

As the Cold War entered its final year, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev asked White House national security adviser Colin L. Powell, “What are you going to do now that you’ve lost your best enemy?”

Four U.S. administrations have struggled to answer that question, recounted by Mr. Powell in his 1995 autobiography, “My American Journey.”

Over the past two decades, the United States has targeted and been targeted by adversaries ranging from Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to Osama bin Laden. But U.S. officials and the American people have sometimes had difficulty calibrating threats, hyping lesser foreign irritants into bogeymen while failing to recognize more serious challenges to U.S. national security.

When the Berlin Wall fell, “the U.S. lost the organizing principle of its foreign policy,” which had been containing the Soviet Union, said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

“We’ve had two decades of debate, confusion, at times incoherence and at times success and overreach,” said Mr. Haass, a veteran of two Republican administrations — that of George H.W. Bush, who presided when the Soviet empire dissolved, and his son, George W. Bush.

In Mr. Haass‘ view, some challenges, such as Saddam’s Iraq, have been exaggerated, while too little attention was paid to issues such as climate change, which threatens to destabilize many nations and create millions of refugees from droughts and rising seas.

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“Before this century is over, global warming, proliferation and disease could turn out to be the cardinal challenges of this era,” he said. “It’s entirely possible that the 21st century will be defined more by global challenges than great power rivalry.”

Brent Scowcroft, Mr. Haass‘ boss as national security adviser to the first President Bush, agrees that the “the end of the Cold War was followed by a period of strategic drift. It’s pretty natural because what we had left behind is this existential threat of a serious mistake leading to a nuclear war which would destroy us, our enemies, maybe the world. All the threats in the world compared to that seemed minuscule.”

Mr. Scowcroft said Americans are slow to recognize threats until they become acute and have had particular difficulty dealing with problems that cannot be resolved by one nation acting alone or with a few close allies.

“It took us time for us to adjust to the fact that a lot of things were happening in the world that had been masked by the Cold War,” he told reporters and editors at The Washington Times recently. “So many more of the problems of the world take international cooperation to deal with — like climate change, like energy problems — that the whole nation-state system is under some attack.”

Mr. Scowcroft said the impact of globalization — particularly the speed with which information is now disseminated around the world — is similar to that of industrialization 250 years ago. “Industrialization built the nation-state,” he said. “Globalization is eroding the things the nation-state can do for itself.”

Stephen J. Hadley, national security adviser to the second President Bush, said the U.S. had been slow to appreciate threats from terrorism and nuclear proliferation in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War.

“We took a holiday in the 1990s; rather than find new enemies, we did just the opposite” in terms of our military and intelligence budgets, he said.

“We were slow to realize that al Qaeda was at war with us and slow in responding to Iraq. It was the ‘end of history’ and the end of threats and the end of ideology. When people asked what would be the next ‘ism,’ nobody had any candidates. We were a little too complacent.”

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, however, “we realized that terrorism is real and it is still out there,” Mr. Hadley said.

He said the Soviet threat and terrorism are “similar in that both are driven by an ideology,” but terrorism can’t “pose an existential threat to the continuation of our country but [is] an existential threat to the way of life as we live it.”

While the younger Mr. Bush famously told nations that they had to choose between supporting the United States or being against it and saw few distinctions among militant groups, Mr. Haass said reality was more complicated.

“We’re in a world where a lot of countries fall between dependable allies and implacable foes” and the U.S. both opposes and seeks to negotiate with adversaries such as North Korea and Iran, he said.

The Obama administration has sought to reach out to these foes, so far without major successes. It also has sought to repair relations with Russia, which became increasingly hostile during the most recent Bush administration, and to strengthen ties with China, which is both a major U.S. economic partner and a potential military rival.

Still, the strategic ambivalence that followed the end of the Cold War has been a challenge — not only for policymakers.

“It is an American trait to demonize the enemy,” said James Church, the pen name of a former U.S. intelligence analyst who has written a series of spy novels set in North Korea. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, “we were forced to find lesser demons.”

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