Home / Articles / Geography, Bureaucracy, and National Security: The Legacies of the Cold War and Post-Cold War Periods
Since 1945, US foreign policy has been defined by precluding the emergence of adversaries and hostile coalitions by creating an Americanized international system through alliances, extended deterrence, and favorable trade terms.
The Cold War national security system has not adapted well to global issues of trade, transnational threats, and China’s expansive foreign policy.
Today’s world is defined by China’s return to global importance. The United States is not only the largest destination for Chinese exports, but almost every country in the world is one of its major trading partners. China has used this revenue to modernize its military, fund a global development program, and position itself as a competitor to US power.
Editor’s Note: 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.
In order to engage in everything from security cooperation to economic development, the United States, after World War II, began to subdivide the world into geographic and functional commands and bureaus. As Kennan described it, the Soviet challenge meant that the United States had “assumed greater international responsibilities than ever before in our history.” With the passage of legislation like the 1947 National Security Act and the 1948 Economic Recovery Act, and the momentous decision to negotiate binding alliances with other states around the world, starting with the Rio Pact of 1947 (for the Western Hemisphere) and the 1949 Washington Treaty (which created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO), the United States needed to create the bureaucratic infrastructure to mobilize and project all types of power around the world—what Kennan called “the perpetual rhythm of struggle, in and out of war.” These legislative and bureaucratic acts signaled that the United States would “have a world-wide, continuous global military presence” and that the United States would seek to establish unified commands in “strategic areas” around the world.
First issued by President Harry Truman in 1946, the Unified Command Plan (UCP), re-examined every two years, has been the overall blueprint for the US defense security architecture. The UCP requires the US Department of Defense to think in terms of geographic areas of responsibility—and then to consider substantive areas of focus. [Today, as of 2023, there are seven geographic commands (European, Africa, Indo-Pacific, Northern, Southern, Central, and Space) and four functional commands (transportation, special operations, strategic, and cyber).]
Like Defense, State also adopted a geographic lens through regional bureaus (consisting today, as of 2023, of African, East Asian and Pacific, European and Eurasian, Near Eastern, South and Central Asian, and Western Hemisphere), as well as multiple functional bureaus (arms control, political-military affairs, counterterrorism, conflict and stabilization operations, etc.) New agencies—including the Central Intelligence Agency, the Agency for International Development, and the now defunct US Information Agency, and the expansion of the national security and foreign policy roles of other Cabinet departments—Commerce, Justice, Agriculture, etc.—involved ever larger parts of the federal government in discrete pieces of the national security mission.
There were some bureaucratic problems—over time, different parts of the US government–the CIA, Department of Defense, Department of State and the National Security Council itself–drew different geographic lines on the map, meaning that areas of responsibility did not always align increasing the number of people and agencies involved in policy coordination. But because, during the Cold War, all US regional and functional strategies were part of a strategic pyramid whose capstone was containing the Soviet Union, problems that might be generated as a result of those geographic “seams” could be managed. In turn, regional policy during the Cold War was understood to be the local manifestation of the overall global Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, with the end goal of shaping a global balance of power that favored America and its allies.
When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union itself collapsed, the United States found itself in possession of a robust geographic and functional national security bureaucracy. Rather than dismantling its foreign policy apparatus and returning the United States to its pre-World War II expeditionary nature, the United States pursued what Josef Joffe has described as a “hub and spokes” approach, where each region of the world connected to the American center and where the United States would play the principal role in creating a regional security architecture. The United States emerged as the leading provider of international security—especially in dealing with the challenges of terrorism, weak and failing states, and rogue regimes—and other states would defer to US leadership for setting the overall global agenda. US security guarantees to traditional power centers in Europe and Asia would usher in a new era of globalization that would produce economic growth, which in turn would strengthen the processes of democratization.
Democratization, in turn, would create alignment in foreign policy interests. As summed up by the German tagline “wandel durch handel”—change through trade—other rising or resurgent powers would be incentivized to align with the US instead of against it. This approach worked in Europe both after World War II and the Cold War and in Asia where Taiwan, South Korea, and other countries overcame authoritarianism as a remedy for social stability. This approach of “deep engagement”—as Stephen G. Brooks, G. John Ikenberry, and William C. Wohlforth put it—would tap down regional conflict and also prevent the emergence of a global challenger to the US system.
From these assumptions, post-Cold War US grand strategy proceeded along the following lines:
First, the United States should act as a regional protector, by providing security to those potential rivals—Japan, China, Western Europe—who would otherwise have to produce security on their own by converting economic strength into military assets. Historically, the accumulation of such assets has fed conflicts and ambitions, and the latter would surely be turned against the reigning primary power, the United States. In short, US foreign policy was defined by precluding the emergence of adversaries and hostile coalitions by building on the US strategy from the Cold War: through alliances, extended deterrence, and favorable trade terms.
Second, in so doing, the United States acted as a regional pacifier. In each region of the world, the United States would seek to guarantee regional security, not only from external threats, but, whether explicitly or implicitly, the security of key players vis-a-vis each other. Geographically oriented bureaucracies and forward-deployed military forces and development agencies enabled this. By extending security guarantees, it was expected conflict would be inhibited and, instead, cooperation among them would be enhanced. The ideal outcome for this model was the transformation of the post-World War II European Coal and Steel Cooperative and other such measures into the European Union, where former great power rivals learned to work together in common cause. In so doing, countries like France, the United Kingdom, or Germany did not have to worry about relative balances of power and security in Europe, and so invested fewer resources in guns and more in butter, and indeed, in communal ventures. As a result, global sub-systems like Western Europe have tended to remain stable, sparing the United States the unpleasant necessity of choice among partners by allaying with all, let alone of fighting on one side or the other. In short, act in order to minimize intervention became the watchword.
The “hub and spokes” approach assumed that after 1991 only the United States had the capacity for truly global reach, while other powers, such as China or Russia, were largely defined as regional in terms of scope and challenge. This approach was buttressed by the post-Cold War reality that the United States was the leading trade and financial partner for every region of the world, and that the sinews of the global system ran through the American hub. It therefore encouraged a trend towards the regionalization of US foreign and security policy where a US global approach was seen as the sum of its regional parts, because the expected “threats will be dispersed rather than concentrated, unpredictable and often unexpected, and significantly derived from regional and state-centered contingencies.” By the early 2000s, there were concerns about the “rigidly regional organization” of US national security policy.
The problem was one of focus. The collapse of the USSR removed the golden thread for US regional strategies. After 1991, subsequent efforts to reframe US grand strategy sought to replace the Soviet threat with “democratic enlargement” or the “war on terror.” But the first lacked specificity in terms of being able to provide a strategic rationale for prioritization and resources. The second focused primarily on functional capacities to deal with violence. Neither could completely overcome the centrifugal forces of regionalism. In the absence of a single, overarching, and existential threat, US approaches to different regions could become less susceptible to prioritization and coordination, more defined by a grab bag of miscellaneous tasks.
But because the United States enjoyed, at least on paper, economic and military supremacy in each region, there was little concern that this might pose a threat to US interests. Thanks to the revolution in military affairs, it was the only country with the logistical and technological capability to deliver overwhelming force to any part of the globe. As the calendar ticked into the new millennium, America was the leading trade partner of choice for more than 80 percent of the world’s nations. The very formulation of the concept of the “rogue state” was that countries that did not want to adhere to the standards and rules of the Americanized international order that the US was taking the lead in formulating could be isolated and cut out of the “hub and spoke” system.
By the early 2000s, a pattern had emerged for US national security. The United States positioned itself as a problem solver for different regions of the world, each with its own distinct issues and logic. The objective was to prevent smaller, localized threats from metastasizing into major challenges for the United States—a lesson seemingly reinforced by the shock of the 9/11 attacks. Whether combating extremism in Central Asia, fighting an outbreak of the Ebola virus in Western Africa, or finding solutions to narco-trafficking in the Western Hemisphere, US power would be deployed to cope with a set of separate, disconnected regional challenges. Most critically, other major powers were viewed primarily through an exclusive regional lens and focus: terrorism was a Middle East problem, Russia was a European problem, China was an Asia-Pacific one, etc.
At the same time, Washington presided over a process of economic globalization largely set on autopilot, under the assumption that growing interconnections and the mutually-beneficial profits that would be generated would mediate any security dilemmas. However, the problem, as Kennan, observing the post-Cold War emergence at the end of his life, was that the US national security establishment was forced to grapple with a world with “no such great and all-absorbing focal points for American policy” which could then provide to the bureaucracy an overarching narrative for US global engagement.
To many, the end of the Cold War heralded the triumph of open societies and democratic institutions, allowing for efficiencies that could be realized from the globalization of production and the adoption of just-in-time supply chains. The potential for this globalization was secured through a commitment to common international governance structures and a shared recognition among policymakers in the United States, Europe, East Asia, Latin America and elsewhere on the value of a general liberalization of global trade and the relaxation of state control over national economies. The so-called Washington Consensus emerged as the byword for a new age where economic efficiency and specialization were paramount and supply chains that spanned previously intractable geopolitical fault lines were now searching for lower costs in wage and other inputs across the globe. It also assumed that knitting together different countries into an extended value chain would diminish the possibility for conflict.
Just-in-time delivery is or, more accurately perhaps, was one of the features of modern-day globalization. Spurred by technological changes such automation and robotization, the just-in-time production of intermediate products on the assembly lines across the globe has enabled businesses to manage, or rather minimize, stocks optimally. Also, advances in multi-mode transportation have made it possible to manage production processes in such a way that the need to keep large and expensive stockpiles was substantially reduced … As a consequence, global supply chains have become “mean and lean”, as well as reliable in ways that allowed production processes to become highly efficient: By and large, only bones were left, with all flesh cut out.
In political and national security terms, however, this has led to unbalanced co-dependencies among countries where economic linkages are not necessarily guaranteed by shared political or security relationships. In particular, these developments proceeded from an assumption that these business ties would constrain Russian or Chinese leaders from seeking to revise or rewrite the rules of the regional or global political orders in ways that might provoke a clash with the United States and its allies.
This new era of globalization also rested on fragile and vulnerable architectures—especially in terms of cyber and digital infrastructure—that depended on the willingness of no actor to risk damaging or destroying it. At the same time, long, involved supply chains rested both on the perceived security of various lines of communication—especially the maritime zones—from disruption—and the ongoing dismantling of borders and barriers that impeded the movement not only of capital and ideas but goods and skills. In other words, as some of the critics of the overly regional focus of post-Cold War US national security policy were pointing out, some of the most critical challenges facing the United States were precisely outgrowths from globalization and global trends, not discrete regional issues.
After 2007, Russia under Vladimir Putin, particularly after his Munich Security Conference speech where he decried the Soviet collapse, the country began to embark on a more confrontational approach to the United States—but did so beyond the bureaucratic “box” of Europe. Whether joint military drills with China and Iran, recultivating closer relationships in Africa and Latin America, and then engaging in active military interventions—in Georgia, Ukraine, and then in Syria—Moscow demonstrated its capacity, even if limited, to act beyond the permutations of a single region. Yet in looking at the disjointed US response to Russian activities along its southern peripheries, geostrategic analyst George Friedman zeroed in on the US “conceptual division of the region into distinct theaters” as a major cause.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been another wake-up call, in this case, about the fragility of global supply chains and calling into question the assumption that global economic integration would produce stability. Instead, as the Economist warned, the “underlying anarchy of global governance is being exposed” by the pandemic, and with it, the confidence in globalization’s ability to promote stability at the global level. Instead, returning to Brakman, Garretsen, and van Witteloostuijn:
The virus has exposed vulnerabilities in the global economic system that were hidden to many, until recently. For instance, essential medical supplies were insufficiently available locally, which reveals that many countries have become dependent on long international supply chains, with a small disruption somewhere along a supply chain being felt everywhere. The Peterson Institute for International Economics notes that China, as one of the main suppliers of medical supplies, has redirected Chinese-made supplies from exports to domestic usage. As a consequence, global prices for medical supplies increased substantially, as did global shortages. Experiences like these might change future international relations. Governments are confronted with unpleasant international dependencies and vulnerabilities. Becoming too dependent on global supply chains might lead to a re-evaluation of global trade and risk assessments.
And this brings us to the most pressing security concern of the mid-twenty-first century: the China challenge.
Today’s world is defined by China’s return to global importance with almost every country in the world as one of its major trading partners. As Mark Green put it:
China is the largest trading partner to Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and Taiwan. Given their proximity, those countries are hardly a surprise. But it is also the top trader with Russia—and Ukraine. In Africa, China is the top partner for countries like South Africa and Kenya. In South America, for places like Brazil; in the Middle East, places like Saudi Arabia. And China is the largest external trading partner of the European Union.
In other words, countries that during the Cold War were key political-economic allies of the United States against the Soviet Union now must balance their relationship with the United States against their economic interdependence with Beijing.
Even the United States is not isolated. America is China’s largest export market, importing over $500 billion worth of goods in 2022. China and its partners such as Russia and Iran with major global south countries like India, Indonesia, and Brazil are looking to create alternatives to the US-led international system where the yuan is a global currency alongside the dollar—offering countries an alternative to having to depend on the US economic and financial hub. European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde captured this: “We are witnessing a fragmentation of the global economy into competing blocs, with each bloc trying to pull as much of the rest of the world closer to its respective strategic interests and shared values.” The yuan is a long way away from supplanting the dollar, if it ever occurs, but China certainly promotes a goal to splinter trade with some countries away from the dollarized trade system.
The economic impact of China’s foreign policy is still developing, but its military impact is clear. Using record trade surpluses, China has invested in its military, modernizing its command structure, created the world’s largest Navy, and planned to quadruple its nuclear arsenal. The Joffe assumption—that rising states would continue to depend on the US to secure their economic and trading linkages—has not been borne out.
The China challenge cannot be addressed fully by the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs and the US Indo-Pacific Command. Remembering the Soviet Union was not addressed solely by US European Command, a new lens is needed. The challenge created by China (and its partners) is global in nature. It is not restricted to a particular region of the world—China is no longer “just” an Asian or Western Pacific issue. Yet the United States struggles to articulate how exactly it will engage in strategic competition that requires an integrated approach across different parts of the world. As this becomes clearer, so too will the inflexibility of the national security system, where the challenges do not neatly segment into pre-existing US geographically defined bureaucratic boxes.
Speaking at the Brookings Institution in May 2023, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger observed that “the current structure of the combatant commands is based solely on geography, which “made absolute sense when most of the conflicts were regional.” But “not anymore”—and this approach leaves a “framework that has lines on maps that don’t really correspond” to where and how the challenges are located, especially the cross-cutting challenges like cyber as well as other states that don’t confine their activity to a single region. Instead, “they create seams.” The changing nature of national security, therefore, requires an overhaul of how the US organizes its efforts.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.