From the Cold War to the War on Terror

Conventional wisdom has it that after the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US enjoyed an interim period free of major conflicts (roughly the Clinton years), which was ended with the beginning of the War on Terror in the wake of 9/11. It increasingly seems to me, though, that there is a basic continuity in US foreign policy. In essence, we are continuing the Cold War even in the absence of an opponent. In fact, this continuity might be all the more pronounced precisely because we did not actually “win” the Cold War — we were deprived of a clear victory by the unexpected and seemingly random dissolution of the USSR, which US intelligence famously failed to predict.

From this perspective, the 90s were an attempt to extract some kind of victory by impoverishing and humiliating Russia — inviting former Warsaw Pact countries into NATO and even flirting with the possibility of including former Soviet Republics, launching a major intervention in Russia’s traditional “sphere of influence” (Kosovo), and of course imposing “shock therapy” on the Russian economy itself, including the liquidation of essentially the entire centrally-planned economic apparatus.

Meanwhile, we have seen the selection of a new enemy — a monolithic “terrorism” to replace the monolithic “communism” of the Cold War years. This had begun under Clinton, but terrorism only got the full Cold War treatment with the Bush administration, which was of course staffed entirely by Cold War veterans. The one major exception was Condi Rice, Bush’s most trusted advisor and the proud holder of a PhD in Sovietology. (In an alternate timeline where Bush did not successfully steal the election, one can assume that environmentalism would have come to the fore — a cause that would itself have been a continuation of a project of cooperation begun under Gorbachev and brought to an abrupt end with the fall of the USSR.)

But wasn’t this in many ways an even better Cold War, one in which the US military apparatus finally had the free hand it had been denied by the policy of containment? Reagan’s “Star Wars” program was an attempt at an end-run around the iron logic of Mutual Assurred Destruction — and now isn’t that fantasy finally fulfilled with the doctrine of unilateral war, with drone strikes that are completely indifferent to the sovereignty even of nominal allies, and with the absolute determination to prevent Iran from achieveing a nuclear deterrent? Finally, we get to release all that energy that was pent up over the Cold War years, vent all that aggression that had become so confusing and aimless when our enemy mysteriously vanished into thin air!

In short, I am tempted to declare the transition from the Cold War to the War on Terror the greatest example of “first as tragedy, then as farce” in world history.

8 thoughts on “From the Cold War to the War on Terror

  1. There’s a great little moment in the ephemera of the Ozymandias issue of WATCHMEN where Ozymandias is signing off on his toy line. The production people insist that he needs an enemy action figure to fight, so they ask if they can develop a line of evil communists. He says communists are over, so they should make terrorists instead. Called in twenty years in advance.

  2. Raymond Haberski, Jr.’s new book God and War has some pretty penetrating analysis of how the Cold War failed to provide the US with a national catharsis. Seems to fit well with your thesis on the continuity between the Cold War and the War on Terror.

  3. Adam Curtis’ BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares comes to a similar conclusion (although a bit more psychologist than historicist). There’s definitely something here.

  4. Oh no, you can clearly see a similar thing with “the matter of France” in medieval and Renaissance England – what started off as primarily an actually existing matter of which of a variety of warlords could control France in the 10th and 11th centuries ended up (hundreds of years later) with Henry VIII’s farcical attempts at conquering France.

  5. I agree that the war on terror is largely a nonsense, and there probably is a thing in the American Governmental Mind that looks for, wants to see, threats, but there was such a thing as the Soviet threat: Kennan’s Long Telegram is sound on the nature of it. Maybe Europe was lucky that it was able to keep the USA interested in Soviet expansionist logic-and-fear.

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