Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy Research Institute

Geography, Bureaucracy, and National Security

| June 29, 2023

The Legacies of the Cold War and Post-Cold War Periods

This first article in a series considers whether or not the legacy national security system of the United States organized around geographic regions is well-suited for strategic competition.

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in significant global upheaval, particularly in the form of fragmented supply chains. This was followed by the Taliban’s success in Afghanistan in August 2021, Russia’s intensification of its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and China’s announcement in 2023 that the world is experiencing a geopolitical transformation. These events suggest that US foreign policy will face significant challenges in the future. The post-Cold War period, once defined by expectations of American leadership promoting international integration under a liberal framework, is strained. A new era is emerging, in which the emergence of other major powers, combined with technologies that promote fragmentation and disintegration, will result in a more competitive international landscape.

The Cold War had forced the United States to move from its traditional approach to national security—formulating episodic, expeditionary responses to specific challenges—in favor of a steady-state, forward-deployed model. Faced with the challenge of the Soviet Union and the risk that a Eurasian hegemon would be able to dominate the industrial centers of Western Europe and East Asia and control the resource endowments of the Middle East and Africa, the US government, after World War II, was forced to address the question as to the extent to which the United States would need to extend its geographic zone of activity and responsibility in order to ensure American security. What scholar Robert Jervis termed the “globalization” of US security commitments meant that the US government had to develop the bureaucracies to carry out what then policymaker Paul Nitze outlined as the “effective organization, direction and leadership” of the “actual and potential capabilities of the United States and of allied and friendly states.”

The global challenge of the USSR provided a central organizing principle that allowed for the coordination of US regional strategies. Beyond the defense of Western Europe and East Asia, the United States had to be able to act in Latin America, the Middle East, and South Asia, and in Africa to safeguard strategic resources, secure key lines of communication, and prevent geographic vulnerabilities from being exploited by the Soviet Union. It was not enough, as Glenn Snyder argued, for the United States to rely on its nuclear arsenal to deter the USSR to secure its position, for threatening a nuclear response to “minor ventures” on the part of the Soviet Union would not be credible. Instead, the United States had to show it could operate effectively in every region of the world.  In turn, the so-called “stability-instability paradox”—where Moscow and Washington had to avoid head-on clashes that might lead to nuclear war— meant, as  Michael Krepon articulated, that the Cold War would be characterized by superpowers “jockeying for advantage in a myriad of ways, including proxy wars and a succession of crises that became surrogates for direct conflict.”  George Kennan described these “myriad of ways” under the rubric of “political warfare”—including alliances, economic aid, security cooperation, and information operations.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Reveron, Derek and Nikolas K. Gvosdev.“Geography, Bureaucracy, and National Security.” Foreign Policy Research Institute, June 29, 2023.

The Authors