Several commenters have written to discuss my rhetorical question as to whether or not Russia and the US will push their renewed rivalry to the point of war. Some have dismissed the possibility of the kind of wars that they have seen in the last decades. They have dismissed the chance of such wars between the two powers on the basis of the full commitment of US ground forces elsewhere. Others have taken up the possibility of a trade war. Only "Curious" addressed my principal concern. Nuclear war.
There will be many who will say that the time has passed when we needed to fear such a thing. The argument will be made that the powers are at last firmly lodged in the character of "rational actors." Are they correct in assuming this state of affairs? I think not. Humans remain a species as much dominated by emotion and the herd instinct as the cool intellect envisioned by "modern" theorists. Group identity in the form of nationalism and other forms of tribal identity are still powerful and likely to remain so.
You think not? Consider this. What was there of really rational calculation in Russia’s recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia? The Russian leaders have every reason to think that Bush, Cheney and the neocons are capable of ideologically driven decisions that are devoid of rational action. The Iraq adventure speaks for itself of an example of that. The near disaster in Iraq has probably been averted through the ability of the US armed forces to learn from their experience there, but the Bush Administration and the neocons dragged their feet and did little to help the armed forces retrieve the situation. McCain can "rattle on" but everyone who really studies the situation in Iraq knows that the solutions reached were complex and only partly the result of the increase in combat units labeled "the surge." The Russians should also consider the bellicose comments of both candidates for the presidency of the United States concerning Georgia and the foolishness of the idea of sending US fleet units into the Black Sea where the potential for a confrontation with the Russian Navy would be high. Such a confrontation, fed by mass emotion expressed by modern media could easily escalate in an an uncontrollable process.
Khrushchev badly misjudged the possibilities for the USSR when he met with Kennedy in 1961. As Kennedy said on a later occasion "the Soviets have made the mistake that many others have. They have thought us weak, soft, and self absorbed."
Russia and the United States still possess the power of Armageddon. They must be more careful in dealing with each other. pl