This week marks 19 years since the attacks of Sept. 11 destroyed New York City's Twin Towers and a portion of the Pentagon, killing 3,000 Americans.
Despite possessing an extraordinarily complex national security organization and infrastructure with 1.5 million active duty military personnel and hundreds of billions of dollars spent on intelligence over the years, the nation was unprepared to prevent and defend against the threat of al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden.
In 1914, great power rivalries in Europe led to competing alliances between Britain, France and Russia, with the promise to guarantee Belgium's neutrality, and Germany, Austro-Hungary, Italy and Turkey. The world was shocked when Austro-Hungary's Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant wife, Sophie, were shot to death in Sarajevo by Joseph Princips, a 19-year-old self-described anarchist who lit the fuse that metastasized great power rivalries into World War I with an estimated 20 million people perishing.
In 1939, the West had ignored Nazi Germany's rearmament and land grabs. The blood and treasure that was shed in the first war made appeasement a more attractive option than conflict for the other major powers in Europe. And the Soviet Union thought itself safe signing the Ribbentrop-Molotov non-aggression pact with Germany prior to the attack on Poland.
Using a staged crisis to retaliate, Nazi Germany stormed into Poland on Sept. 1, occupying it four weeks later. World War II had begun.
Do 1914, 1939 and 2001 have any common links with today? In 1914, great power rivalry dominated the geostrategic politics of Europe. Current U.S. national security strategy is based on winning a global competition against two peer or near peer powers. In simple terms, this is a great power rivalry, one of the causes of World War I. The question is what differentiates today from 1914?
In 1939, Germany's militarization made war virtually inevitable. Today, China has expanded its military power and control over proximate seas. Unlike 1939, the United States has recognized and reacted to China's actions. U.S. strategy is to deter and defeat, if war comes, a series of potential rivals with China atop the list. The question is what are the limits of China's military and territorial ambitions and will both lead to a clash of interests that could entail the use of force?
In 2001, the nation was unprepared, not properly organized and completely surprised by Sept. 11. In 2020, aside from a handful of Asian states, the United States was not alone in being totally unprepared for the arrival of the coronavirus despite years of studying and war-gaming potential pandemic scenarios. What has been learned?
Three conclusions are apparent. First, 2020 is not 1914, 1939 or even 2001. The United States has allies in Europe and Asia. And unlike the 1918-20 Spanish flu that struck during a world war, global cooperation today ultimately will prevail over this pandemic.
Second, however, the arrival of this pandemic is perhaps a final warning that the greatest danger and threat to mankind is a new version of the old Cold War MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) -- namely Massive Attacks of Disruption. Disruption whether from environmental catastrophes arising from climate change; cyber and social media attacks against people and governments; terror worse that Sept. 11; debt that could break the collective bank; or failed and failing government that cannot fill the public's needs that must become a central foundation to national security thinking and planning.
And as the nation was unready for Sept. 11, it is perhaps even more unready for the wave of future MAD scenarios that will strike unexpectedly and at times not of our choosing.
Third, we cannot forget that great power rivalries over a century ago were largely responsible for World War I. That suggests that the nation should carefully re-examine a strategy based on a closely related cousin of great power rivalry, namely a global power competition with peers. Left unchecked, a naval arms race between the United States and China as China's naval power grows and America demands 355 ships could resemble what happened between Great Britain and the Kaiser's Germany to outpace the other in building super-dreadnoughts.
To ensure 2020 or 2021 is not 1914, 1939 or 2001, the next administration must undertake a fundamental re-examination of the assumptions on which national security strategy rests, emphasizing the arrival of new MAD -- Massive Acts of Disruption. Should the president be re-elected, this will be an immense challenge to consider a course change. But if not done, 1914 or 1939 may prove frighteningly relevant.
Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist, a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and author of the upcoming book, "The Fifth Horseman: To Be Feared, Friended or Fought in a MAD-Driven Age."