Perspective on the next big threat

The international flash point du jour is Kosovo. The trade problem du jour is the banana and beef war with Europe. The international scandal du jour is Chinese nuclear spying. But none of these resonates as a clear and present danger to America like the Berlin blockade of 1948 or the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Ten years ago, as the Berlin Wall came down and Mikhail Gorbachev began to withdraw from the cold war, one of his advisers, Georgi Arbatov, told me sardonically, "We will deprive you of an enemy and then what will you do?"

Since that time, America has had difficulty discerning where to look for the next big threat as opposed to the momentary flash point. That is a problem addressed by former Defense Secretary William Perry and former Assistant Secretary Ashton Carter in a thoughtful new book, "Preventive Defense: A New Security Strategy for America" (Brookings Institution Press).

Looking to the 21st century, they outline A, B, and C lists of trouble. C is for problems like Kosovo or Rwanda that don't directly threaten US interests. B is for major regional contingencies like the Persian Gulf and North Korea, that do threaten American interests, but not American survival. A is for the former Soviet Union, which could have endangered America's survival. The A category is empty right now, and keeping it that way is what this book is about.

In Russia, the potential danger is chaos, isolation, and aggression - like Weimar Germany after World War I. Russia also presents a danger of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands. In China, the potential danger is that this vast country, with a growing arsenal of offensive weapons, could turn hostile to the West. The nature of the danger suggests the nature of the preventive strategy:

*In Russia, continuing the program of destroying nuclear weapons. Taking a deep breath before enlarging NATO any further. Keeping the Russian military engaged - as Mr. Perry did by getting the Russians to join the NATO forces in Bosnia.

*In China, continuing the military exchanges that Perry promoted, and working to make China a security partner rather than an adversary.

The authors also have a chapter on the revolutionary reforms in the military that will be needed to keep America strong. But their emphasis is on broadening the definition of defense beyond military strategy to make prevention the most effective form of deterrence.

*Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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