Is the Demise of the Soviet Union Hurting the US?

A student asked me a very interesting question yesterday: has the demise of the Soviet Union made the United States weaker? The answer seems to be affirmative.

One might have expected that the end of the Cold War would have brought the promised peace dividend, but it did not. Instead, the US looked for enemies elsewhere. As I wrote in my book, Manufacturing Discontent:

“Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. armed forces, expressed the exasperation of the politically connected elements of the military in an interview with the Army Times in the Spring of 1991: “I’m running out of demons. I’m down to Castro and Kim Il Sung” (Anon. 1991). In reality, the military’s supposedly new mission had been in the works for quite a while. Only five days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Colin Powell already had a proposal for a new strategy.”

Thankfully, at least for the defense contractors, the US found new enemies that proved far more expensive than Powell’s demons. Moreover, the US gleefully adopted the role of the sole remaining superpower, blustering and blundering in its foreign policy, lacking a restraining force of the Soviet military. The direct costs of its new ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan are high, but not greatly so. The US can afford to waste a few trillion dollars in the course of a few years. Much more costly is a corrosive effect of the posture of preferring to be feared rather than loved.

How much will it cost the US in terms of the talented graduate students who are either restricted or disgusted by the current foreign policy? How much will it cost the US in terms of the wasteful expenditures of looking for terrorists under every rug? [Certainly, a rational policy would have spent more effort protecting nuclear power plants and chemical installations.] Economists call some of these costs transactions costs, but many of these costs are just extra costs of doing business.

In any case, I think the student asked a very intelligent question. I hope that some of you have better responses than this one.


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