September 7, 2017 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads - Sixteen Years Since 9/11, How Serious Is the Threat Today?


Monday marks the sixteenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Americans reacted with resilience and resolve—building strong defenses at home and striking the terrorists abroad. In the years since we have come to appreciate that, while grave and real, terrorism is not an existential threat to the United States. Yes, it is a danger. It remains a cheap and destructive tool used by the worst perpetrators to kill and spread fear. But neither jihadist terrorists nor those inspired by them pose a grave, systemic danger to the modern American way of life or to the postwar international order that supports it.

More recently, we have been reminded that such threats persist—are growing even. “If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States,” General Joseph Dunford said in 2015, “I’d have to point to Russia.” The NATO Supreme Commander and the US Director of National Intelligence have since echoed this analysis.

Intention and capability are the two components that determine risk and threats. The last few years have shown President Vladimir Putin’s intentions are to position Russia as a revisionist power, at odds with the postwar international order. Paired with the 4,300 nuclear warheads at the Kremlin’s disposal—its capability—this intention to confront the United States and its allies makes Russia a much more worrisome threat today than the terrorist threat that has so dominated our discourse and actions in the past 16 years. This is not to say Putin wants to start a war with the United States, or that the threat he poses is imminent. But if war were to come, it would be grave indeed. And war with Russia is not unthinkable anymore. As David Ignatius explains in an article below, all too often miscalculation leads to conflict, and war finds a way to grow from small infractions.

There are other looming threats as well. China, with its own nuclear stockpile, could devastate the United States if relations between Beijing and Washington sour in the years ahead. And the last few weeks have shown North Korea’s nuclear capability gaining on an already outsized intention to challenge the United States. Unless Iran is handled with smart diplomacy, not just over the next few months, but over the coming years, then it, too, could pose a serious nuclear threat. These are the threats many of the articles below focus on.

Shortly after 9/11, historian David McCullough noticed a new habit among TV commentators of saying that “everything had changed” with the terrorist attacks. “But everything hasn't changed,” he would reply, “and we shouldn't accept that kind of analogy.” The country had been through worse, he said, and we’re very much the America we were, a nation in an enviable position in terms of freedom, strength, wealth, opportunity, resources . . .

We are still that nation today.

Don’t Be Surprised by North Korea’s Missiles. Kim Jong Un Is Doing What He Said He Would.

Anna Fifield/The Washington Post

“[A]nyone who’s surprised by the past month’s events. . . hasn’t been paying attention,” the Washington Post’s bureau chief in Tokyo writes. Amid the barrage of missile launches and nuclear tests in North Korea in recent weeks, Pyongyang has telegraphed each of its latest provocations ahead of time, she writes, often with clear warnings. The conclusion, at least to keen North Korea watchers, is that Kim Jong-un is many things, but unpredictable is not one of them.

A World That Came in from the Cold

Paul Kennedy/Wall Street Journal

In this review of Odd Arne Westad’s new 700-page history of the Cold War, Paul Kennedy tries to sum up the difficulty in summing up the decades-long period. The Cold War was a contest between superpowers, but also a period when smaller nations found or lost their footing. Europe was center stage for the conflict, but so were a thousand other points across the globe. In the end, this massive, detailed account of the period spanning from 1945 to 1991 is a wonderful corrective to those today who say the Cold War was a simpler time.

History Shows Us How Calamitous the North Korea Crisis Could Become

David Ignatius/The Washington Post

“History teaches that wars often result from bellicose rhetoric and bad information,” David Ignatius writes in the Washington Post. Few of the wars or near wars in the last century have started because all sides were enthusiastic to begin. More often, Ignatius writes, “conflict results from a cascade of errors that produces an outcome that no one would have wanted.” If all of this history sounds relevant to the present, that’s because it is. Several applicable lessons to the current standoff with North Korea can be gleaned from WWI and the Cold War, he writes. 

Merkel Must Stand up to Putin over the Hacking of Democracy

Toomas Hendrik Ilves/Financial Times

Russians have been implicated in a rash of election hacking and meddling in the West. Estonia, France, Norway, the Netherlands, Ukraine, and the United States have all been hit. Now, it seems, it is Germany’s turn. In this piece for the Financial Times, Toomas Hendrik Ilves advises German Chancellor Angela Merkel to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin by invoking Article 4 of the North Atlantic treaty. Ilves speaks with authority. He was president of Estonia in 2007 when Russian hackers took down many websites in his country.

Cold War Lessons in Coercive Diplomacy for Dealing with North Korea Today

Michael McFaul/Medium

“To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war,” Winston Churchill said. Yet debate in the United States over what to do about North Korea has quickly polarized into either talking or fighting. The Cold War teaches us that we need a bit of both, at least in terms of matching diplomacy with pressure. The other Cold War lesson, McFaul writes, is that the United States must move away from its stated goal of complete denuclearization by Pyongyang. He writes, “declaring denuclearization as the goal without an effective strategy for achieving this outcome is not a policy, just a hope.”

I Just Toured the Front Lines between Russia and Ukraine (and It's Not Frozen)

Seth J. Frantzman/The National Interest

The conflict in Ukraine’s Donbass region is often described as “frozen.” Nothing could be further from the truth, writes Seth J. Frantzman in the National Interest. On the front lines with Ukrainian solders, Frantzman deftly switches between reporting on-the-ground concerns about, for example, the type of assault rifles being used to explaining 30,000-feet issues, such as the status of the Minsk II agreement. The article is an insightful update on an important conflict that may have fallen off your radar in recent weeks.

What Would War with North Korea Look Like?

Robin Wright/The New Yorker

You may already know the conclusion, but Robin Wright’s essay in the New Yorker is less about the assured catastrophe war with North Korea would cause, and more about outlining step-by-step how the events might take place. It’s a sobering read, but a necessary one. It is important to flesh out the often skeletal argument that there are no good military options when it comes to Pyongyang. 

Gas Geopolitics: Is US LNG Really a Game-Changer in Eastern Europe?

Stuart Elliott/Platts

Lithuania celebrated a new shipment from the United States in August. Poland did the same in June. It was not new US military equipment ahead of Russia’s Zapad military exercises. Rather, it was liquid natural gas (LNG), shipped from the heel of Louisiana. Tankers of LNG crossing the oceans with the frequency of today’s oil tankers has been heralded as the next great energy revolution, not least because it holds the promise of reducing Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas. The reality, however, is not yet living up to the hopes. US LNG is still a very small export, and more often than not it heads toward markets in Asia rather than in Europe. This article by Stuart Elliott in Platts is a smart and clear appraisal of this new industry. 


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