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The Domino Theory in the 21st Century

By Whitney Welsh Gibbs
Ambassador and student at American Military University

With violence, murder, and hate seemingly an everyday occurrence in the United States and throughout the world, it leads many to wonder how to ensure the safety of the world’s citizens. We need to look to history in order to best understand the ways in which to combat the chaos that has stricken every corner of the globe.

Post-World War II, many western political leaders who greatly feared the spread of communist ideologies contended that the fall of a nation to communism would lead to the fall of neighboring nations in a manner similar to dominoes falling in a line of succession. First theorized in the 1940s by President Harry S. Truman as the Cold War began to unfold and tension between the United States and the Soviet Union began to rise, the Domino Theory is now seen as a great instance of fear mongering that lead to what some believe to have been unnecessary wars, including Korea or Vietnam.

How then can this supposedly irrational theory propelled by fear help the world to understand the ways in which 21st century global threats grow? How will this help leaders to find ways to combat it?

More than 60 years since its first introduction, the Domino Theory may be more applicable today than during the Cold War. Terrorism is on the rise as al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS continue to conduct acts of terror, such as the recent attacks upon Paris and public executions of enemy prisoners of war.

Attacks organized by radical Islamic groups have been carried out in the regions in which the terrorist cells were first organized and also within nations including France, Egypt, The United States, Tunisia, The United Kingdom, Beirut, and Turkey. Lone wolf, or sympathizer attacks, have also occurred, including the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013 and the Lindt Café hostage crisis in Sydney in 2014.

The terror organizations of the 21st century pose a unique threat that communism of the Cold War never could: the threat of breaking national boundaries in the pursuit of furthering their belief system. The Domino Theory of the Cold War was based around the idea that as a nation’s government fell to communist ideologies so would its neighbors.

However, governments are associated with a specific region or nation and operate within the confines of their boundaries and their ideologies are only spread by the conscious adoption of ideals and policies over time or the aggressive acts of war brought forth by a nation seeking to expand their own empire. This does not guarantee that their neighbor’s ideologies would be influenced by their own or that they would be able to gain a following within the governments of their neighbors.

Terror organizations do not work in a similar fashion. They are independent entities operating within a region and, although they could in fact take over a governmental body, they have the freedom to mobilize and seek to spread their ideals throughout multiple nations without devouring any governments at all. They seek followers not only within their immediate reach, but globally. They expand forces through technology and are not constrained by physical limitations.

With rising social unrest throughout nations of the world today, citizens are faced with the divided ethnic, social, and ideological views of their neighbors; this leads to chaos, disorder, and crime. Politically, nations are faced with polarizing viewpoints which never seem to find a middle ground on both the domestic and international levels. In times of division and turmoil, individuals seek change which promises a world more in line with their own views.

Organizations, such as the radical Islamic State terror groups that seek to propel their own agenda in the name of change, prey upon those who cannot find the strength within their own leadership. Historically, this can be seen in the interwar period of the early 20th century in Germany as the broken and divided nation turned to Adolf Hitler to bring forth a better world.

Today, it is not abundantly clear what can be done to stop the sophisticated adversaries faced by the nations of the world. What is clear, however, is the Domino Theory presented during the early days of the Cold War is very much a threat as domestic and international terrorism grows daily. Combating the growth of terrorism may require global unification of nations and ideals.

About the Author: Whitney Welsh Gibbs is a senior at the American Military University where she is currently working to complete her Bachelor of Arts degree in Military History. After receiving her bachelor’s degree, she hopes to continue her educational journey with the American Public University System as she pursues her Master of the Arts degree in Intelligence Studies. Whitney is also a proud University Ambassador through which she promotes the mission and integrity of the school to prospective students to create a better understanding of what the American Public University System has to offer.

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