03/06/2014 05:07 pm ET Updated May 06, 2014

I Knew the Cold War, It was No Friend of Mine, and This is No Cold War

The pundits are abuzz about the dangers Putin provoked in the Ukraine constituting a return of the Cold War. They don't.

As serious as the situation is -- proving once again that weakness is provocative and strength deters -- this is no "Cold War II." Russia is much weaker than the Soviet Union, with an economy barely the size of Italy's and a lifestyle far below, a declining life expectancy and virtually nothing actually made there valued on the world market. It's a Third World economy based on raw materials.

Moreover, today's dangers are far less than during the Cold War.

When Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in Reykjavik, Iceland in mid-October 1986, the main worry was over an all-out nuclear war between the superpowers. That fear lay behind the massive marches of the disarmament movement, parents' fears of radioactive milk, fathers building basement fallout shelters, and dramas like On the Beach and The Day After. Growing up on the south side of Chicago, I heard an alarm wail through the halls of Bryn Mawr Grammar School at 10:30 each Tuesday morning in the late 1950s, prompting us to walk, calmly, down the hallway and kneel down and shove our heads into our hall lockers. Ours was not a unique experience in that time.

Clearly, there was genuine dread of a nuclear Armageddon wiping out America and life on earth, whether due to irrational hostility, political miscalculation, or even stupid accident. Recent research in Eric Schlosser fine book, "Command and Control," documents hundreds of spine-chilling near misses of nuclear accidents, many because of their Cold War high alert status.

Experts considered such fears justified and they were probably right. The Cold War was an objectively dangerous time, as well as a subjectively terrifying one.

As bad as the threats we face today are--Putin overconfident and overbearing, Kim Jong-un running amok, Iran going nuclear, a terrorist organization with a suitcase bomb--none would constitute an existential threat to the United States or to life on earth.

Anyone who asserts that our current predicament resembles that during the Cold War either didn't live during the Cold War or wasn't alert to its dangers. Even with today's risks--violating international borders, nuclear proliferation, and terrorism--it has still been much safer living the twenty-seven years since Reykjavik than it was living the twenty-seven years before that weekend.

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