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Man-made disruptions include the grounding of a ship in the Suez Canal, cutting off global supply chains, in 2021. File Photo by Karem Ahmed/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/f8dce546505ff5b505dc25f5ca56df41/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>

Man-made disruptions include the grounding of a ship in the Suez Canal, cutting off global supply chains, in 2021. File Photo by Karem Ahmed/UPI | License Photo

Aug. 31 (UPI) — The seven decades following the hardening of the Cold War through today can strategically be portrayed as the passage of three different MADs.

The first was Mutual Assured Destruction. Both sides of the Iron Curtain possessed more than enough thermonuclear firepower to destroy the other many times over. The threat of this MAD, perhaps because it suggested the madness of nuclear war, helped prevent it.

With the end of the Cold War, the self-proclaimed triumph of liberal Western democracy had a short half-life shattered by Sept. 11, 2001. The al-Qaida attacks set America on a global war on terror it could not win. And those attacks presaged a new emerging MAD: one of Massive Attacks of Disruption.

This newer MAD was created by a paradox. As societies became more advanced and modernized through globalization and the diffusion of power, all became increasingly vulnerable to massive disruption, whether imposed by nature or by man. Al-Qaida proved that.

Naturally caused disruptions include climate change, environmental disasters and, as 2019 ended, a pandemic. Man-made disruptions range from failed governments, cyber, social media and terror to accidents such as the grounding of a ship in the Suez Canal cutting off global supply chains. Brought home, consider the effects if access to cellphones, the Internet, bank accounts and power, water and food were lost to massive disruptions.

Now, a third MAD has emerged, metastasizing massive disruption into potentially massive destruction. The collapse of relations between the United States and Russia and China has heightened fear of these tensions escalating into war. More intense weather extremes marked by unprecedented heat waves and fires and the severing of Ukrainian shipments of wheat and food stuffs threatening potential starvation for hundreds of millions could not be more tragic evidence of how acts of disruption become truly destructive. And, if current data is predictive, climate change can make the third MAD existential.

Beginning with the Obama administration, American strategy fixated on a Great Power Competition with China as the “pacing threat,” followed by Russia as the more immediate challenge. Yet, competition does not sufficiently embrace the influence and impact of the newer two MADs of disruption and destruction. What might serve as a more fitting replacement for GPC and today’s realities?

During the Cold War and understanding the madness of the first MAD, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev called for “peaceful coexistence.” Khrushchev’s aspiration was for both the United States and United Soviet Socialist Republics to compete short of war. Khrushchev should be credited for proposing the alternative to a Great Power Competition.

It is self-evident that for the United State, China, Russia and the world at-large, some form of coexistence is essential. Unlike the first two world wars, a conflict between or among these three could explode into thermonuclear war. The global economy would be wrecked. Billions could die and few places on Earth would be immune from catastrophic damage.

Hence, a 21st century variant of peaceful coexistence is needed. The third MAD describes a world of dangerous coexistence; the second MAD the permanence of disruption. The aim then must be diverting dangerous coexistence into the safer form of disruptive coexistence.

A critical question is if today is as or more dangerous than the days preceding World Wars I and II and the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis? That question is unanswerable. But the signs are ominous.

With fighting taking place around Ukraine’s nuclear reactors, is an even greater Chernobyl catastrophe looming? Ukraine launched a successful attack on Russia’s Saki air base in Crimea. If further Ukrainian strikes are made outside its borders into Russia with U.S. or NATO weapons, would Moscow retaliate against NATO or America, escalating the war?

In 2001, a Chinese fighter collided with an American anti-submarine aircraft over Hainan Island, forcing a crash landing. That crisis was quickly resolved. Suppose a Chinese aircraft or ship collided with or threatened a U.S. Navy aircraft or warship. Or suppose that warning shots were exchanged. Could that provoke conflict, especially after China shut down all military-to-military communications with its American counterparts?

One of the greatest flaws in Great Power Competition is the lack of an off-ramp. Using dangerous coexistence as a framework, the common sense off-ramp is moving to disruptive coexistence by resolving those issues we can and setting guardrails where we cannot. This demands a dramatic change in strategic thinking. Sadly, that is not America’s strongest suit.

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington’s Atlantic Council, the prime author of “shock and awe” and author of “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.” Follow him @harlankullman.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.



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