At the risk of feeling old, earlier today I went to one of those websites that will tell you what percentage of Americans are older and younger than you. I’m 52, and that means more than two-thirds of my fellow citizens are younger. Why does that matter? Well, they can’t relate to the glories of seeing the original Star Wars trilogy in the theaters. They’ve only seen documentaries about the Larry Bird/Magic Johnson rivalry. Oh, and they have absolutely no idea what it’s like to worry about a world war.
I grew up in the Cold War, when bookstores stocked their shelves with books analyzing the balance of military power between NATO and the Warsaw Pact (I owned several), debates about ICBMs and strategic bombers could monopolize public attention, and there were multiple war scares that kept Americans up at night with real fears about catastrophic conflict.
Then, three things happened in rapid succession that dramatically changed the world. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and the Warsaw Pact unraveled. In February 1991, the U.S. and its allies decisively defeated Iraq in the first Gulf War. And that December, the Soviet Union fell. Taken together, these events not only left the world with one global superpower (a “hyperpower” according to some), they established the absolute dominance of American arms.
Since that time America has faced economic shocks, it’s endured a devastating terror attack that led to two long counterinsurgency conflicts, and it’s faced a pandemic. But the world has been mercifully spared even the possibility of the kinds of great power conflicts that could spiral into world war. After all, who would be foolish enough to challenge the United States?