Were those of us who lived through much of the Cold War kidding ourselves that its end signaled a New World Order?
Critics on the right believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s breathtaking invasion and annexation of Crimea from Ukraine proves we were naïve — that the notion of a global political system where international law and multinational agreements would prevail over humankind’s baser instincts was pie in the sky.
Robert D. Kaplan, a noted geopolitical strategist who wrote Time magazine’s cover story on the subject, put it this way. “Forget about technology as the great democratizer. Forget the niceties of international law. Territory and the bonds of blood that go with it are central to what makes us human.”
Kaplan is a longtime correspondent for the Atlantic, best-selling author and academic military lecturer (and former reporter for the Rutland Herald). In this latest article, he chides the “global elite,” for whom “the post-Cold War era was supposed to be about economics, interdependence and universal values trumping the instincts of nationalism.” Instead, Kaplan writes. “Putin’s actions betray a singular truth, one that the U.S. should remember as it looks outward and around the globe: International relations are still about who can do what to whom.”
In his speeches to NATO and the European Union this past week, President Obama mused about some widely held post-Cold War assumptions. “Russia’s leadership is challenging truths that only a few weeks ago seemed self-evident,” Mr. Obama said in Brussels. “That in the 21st century, the borders of Europe cannot be redrawn with force; that international law matters; and that people and nations can make their own decisions about the future.” He added, “The contest of ideas continues,” while strongly recommitting NATO to the defense of its newest members formerly under Communist-Russian rule.
So does that mean we are retreating back to the bad old days of the Cold War — probably without the imminent threat of nuclear war — but somewhat removed from the certainty that peace in Europe is secure?
Before reaching such dire conclusions, we need to refresh our memories of the reality of the Cold War.
On March 12, 1947, President Harry Truman addressed Congress with what he called “an extremely critical situation” that required immediate action. The threat was communism. As Haynes Johnson wrote in his book, “The Age of Anxiety,” “His speech amounted to a declaration of war, one that did not require congressional authorization, but one that would commit the United States to doing battle for nearly half a century.” As Johnson wrote in this 2005 book focusing on McCarthyism, “Though the term Cold War is now solidly anchored in history, it is a misnomer. America actually fought a decades-long ‘hot war.’ Before it ended, nearly a hundred thousand American lives were lost in the conflicts of Korea and Vietnam. Millions more were lost in covert and overt military operations worldwide. The nation expended $11 trillion to wage this war.”
In retrospect, there is no question that the United States faced a real foreign communist threat. But there is also little doubt that the domestic communist threat was greatly exaggerated. Nine days after the Truman Doctrine address, the president issued an executive order instituting a federal “loyalty-security” program. Eventually one in five Americans had to complete a loyalty statement as a condition of employment and tens of thousands lost their jobs because of unproven or false accusations of disloyalty. It was in this atmosphere that the demagogue Sen. Joseph McCarthy would claim that the State Department and the U.S. Army had been heavily infiltrated by communists and for several years almost no one had the courage to challenge him — not in the media, the Congress or even the White House. Such was life in America during part of the Cold War.
Overseas, the Soviet Union sent tanks into Hungary to put down a rebellion in 1956, used tanks again to suppress the Prague Spring in 1968, and forced a military crackdown in Poland in 1981. Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson and Reagan had no way to respond short of military actions that might have set off a nuclear war — as the confrontation over Russian missiles in Cuba almost did in 1962.
But the situation in 2014 is fundamentally different. Throughout the years of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies, were immune to outside economic pressures. Their economies were not strong by comparison to the West, but for the most part they were self-contained. In short, they were not dependent upon global trade, nor did they rely upon international banking and foreign investments. However, in today’s interdependent global economy, Russia is vulnerable to outside forces.
While some have made light of the sanctions that the United States and the European Union have placed on Russia to date — or might be willing to impose if Putin decides to make a bigger grab of Ukrainian territory — consider this. Europe may rely on Russian gas and oil for roughly a third of its energy needs, but Russia also is totally dependent on the sale of these commodities to stay afloat financially. This is an important reason this new crisis is most unlikely to reach the magnitude of those crises of the old Cold War.
Still, we should not entirely ignore the Kaplan analysis that geography — meaning land, history, culture, religion and ethnicity — still matters. Kaplan writes approvingly, “The rest of the world still thinks in terms of deserts, mountain ranges, all weather ports and tracts of land and water.”
And this thinking is actually going to be particularly relevant if/when climate change creates massive shortages of arable land, food and drinkable water throughout the planet. Skeptics take note: A decade of droughts and dust storms created the first flashpoints of the current Syrian civil war. So unless we begin seriously to address climate change on a global scale, I fear any new world order based on international law may indeed succumb to the law of the survival of the fittest.
Barrie Dunsmore is a former foreign correspondent for ABC News. He lives in Charlotte.
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