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Friday, March 1, 2024
The Observer

Why the Cold War stayed cold

In the years following the Allies’ triumph, optimists’ hopes for a tranquil and amicable new world order governed from Washington and Moscow were disappointed as, seemingly inexorably, the world was divided into opposed spheres. After the Korean War, Suez Crisis and the failed Hungarian revolution, humanity trembled in terror at the seemingly incipient prospect of nuclear holocaust. Yet the Cold War remained so, and could be turned to inferno by neither the Cuban missile crisis, nor the war in Vietnam nor even the USSR’s unstable final years. How did two utterly hostile powers, diametrically ideologically opposed, engaged in proxy and secret conflicts in every corner of the earth, with vast arsenals directed towards each other, avoid war? Could it be that it quite simply never made sense for either power to make war on the other, and that thus Russians and Americans were guided, if not towards peace, at least away from the unimaginable horrors of nuclear exchange and modern total war? This may seem like a startling proposition to modern Americans, conditioned by the odious rattling of the military-industrial complex’s mouthpieces recklessly all too often showcased on the cable news. Yet the possibility of Russo-American mutual interest in peace merits at least exploration, for if the notion held true 25 years ago it holds true today, and recognition of such a situation could prove invaluable in our increasingly uncertain world.

Since the 1648 establishment of the modern international political system at Westphalia, states’ conduct and relationships abroad have been understood to be governed by the pursuit of polities’ vital international interests, and the interaction of those interests with those of other states. These vital interests are generated by the exigencies of military defense, the projection and extension of national economic interests and sentiments produced by international political, social and cultural ties, alongside a suite of less pressing considerations. Through the confluence of these factors, certain places and situations are rendered into issues of existential importance to a polity, and others of near-total irrelevance. Despite the scattered gibberings of neoconservatives — whose doctrine of universal crusade shares far more with the notions of Joan d’Arc, Robespierre and Lenin than with Washington, Lincoln or Roosevelt — such is the case for America as well. Aspiration to global hegemony is a doomed madness suitable only for the doomed madmen — Hitler, Napoleon, etc. — who have held it. Since the adoption of the Monroe Doctrine, the United States has claimed dominance over the entire Western Hemisphere — a dominance now long unchallenged, and thus undoubted. To this sphere of influence was then added Western Europe, a connection confirmed by the decisive American interventions in both World Wars and maintained by commercial exchange. To this was added the Western Pacific and Oceania, in steps proceeding from the economically driven acquisition of Hawaii, accelerated by the conquest of the Spanish Empire’s Pacific possessions and solidified by our defeat and dismantlement of the Japanese Empire. This sphere of influence, comprising half of the globe, in addition to much of the wealthiest portions of the other half, might appear wildly overextended to some. Yet in modern American political discourse, to restrict our sphere of interest constitutes, for some, such moderation as to risk being labeled treasonous.

Far outside the above-delineated area lies all of the territories even the most rabid Russo-phobe might perceive to be within the scope of Vladimir Putin’s ambitions. American meddling in Ukraine, historical cradle of the Russian people, serves no conceivable purpose, particularly in that country’s openly secessionist east and south. Other states beset by Putin’s meddling are even more irrelevant to American interests. Recent talk of admitting Georgia to NATO is as strategically ridiculous as it is linguistically. As usual, Mick Jagger was right when he sang “you can’t always get what you want.” In international politics, you have to pick your spots. In not remotely one of the locales afflicted by Russian revanchism does it make any sense for America to oppose Russian efforts.

In an interview, Putin once said “It’s not by chance that Russia and the U.S. forge alliances in the most critical moments of modern history. That was the case in WWI and WWII. Even if there was fierce confrontation, our countries united against a common threat, which means there’s something that unites us. There must be some fundamental interest which brings us together.” I must agree.

The bear and the eagle are each unparalleled and unquestioned apex predators of their own demesnes, yet one would never see this formidable duo locked in combat for supremacy over the entirety of the animal kingdom. Let us hope America and Russia can act with similar wisdom.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.