By Jonathan Power*
Oh, to be a Cold War warrior again! I always felt a bit sorry for those politicians, academics, soldiers and journalists who had hitched their careers to the onward march of the Cold War. It was satisfying. There was a clear enemy. The complex arithmetic on which side had what and what nuclear weapons could do was as satisfying intellectually as it was complicated.
At its most sophisticated level—the SALT and START nuclear weapons’ reduction negotiations between the US and the USA—you needed the mind of a chess master and the tenacity of an Olympic athlete. It was a marvellously rewarding feeling when once it was recognised that you were a member of this elite group.
When the Cold War ended in 1989 with a slew of arms limiting agreements these people in the Blob were effectively unemployed. While they were down and out this should have been the time for both superpowers to get rid of all their nuclear weapons. What were they needed for?
Lying around, albeit unused, they could be picked up and deployed again if relations turned for the worse—which they did. Simply put this was a self-fulfilling prophecy. They made leaders nervous and helped keep animosity alive, even if it was under the surface. If they had been abolished a turn in feelings from good to not-so-good wouldn’t have had the savage, malevolent, bite it does today.
Fortunately for the old Cold War warriors, the “Islamic Threat” and the “War on Terror” came along, which worked to renew their contracts. Never mind that few knew anything about Islam, its history or its doctrines, they raced ahead, contorting themselves with facts and opinions they had difficulty grasping. It all got knotted up with the personalities and actions of Al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden and Iraq’s mercurial president, Saddam Hussein and the private wars they were fighting against Western interests.
Indeed, bin Laden did score a knockdown blow when his henchman hijacked passenger planes and flew them into New York’s Twin Towers. He justified it by referring to the Quran. An overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world were aghast. But many westerners insisted on tracing bin Laden’s activities to Mohammed’s teaching.
A while later, the US and its allies invaded Afghanistan, bin Laden’s redoubt.
It took a while, but not that long, before attention moved to Iraq where the pagan president of an Islamic country, Saddam Hussein, was said, by the same alarmists, to be possessing nuclear and chemical weapons. Again, this justified the US hanging on to its massive, albeit much reduced thanks to START, nuclear arsenal.
All this meant jobs for the boys—or to use the non-sexist term, the “Blob”, a word coined by Ben Rhodes, President Barack Obama’s deputy national security advisor. It’s a splendid expression that describes the coalition of conservative-inclined politicians, military officers, academics and journalists- some Republicans, some Democrats- who effectively hold the reins on foreign policy and realpolitik and can often undermine any “peacenik” tendencies of a sitting president. (President Joe Biden before he became president was not part of this cabal.)
What next? Bin Laden and Hussein were killed. Their movements fell apart. Terrorism against American and European targets continued but on a limited scale- in the US in recent years most terrorist attacks have been carried out by white Americans, not by Islamist extremists.
But Americans—and the British too, who have fought more wars than any other country in the world—appear to need an enemy. (But not the Germans, who have had enough of war.) The benign atmosphere of the first few post-Cold War years gradually dissipated. Inevitably, there were irritants and the West’s response was partly understandable but often over the top. Russia and its policing, security apparatus and the courts had not been trained to respect human rights, so abuses were inevitable.
Under President Boris Yeltsin the economy nose-dived. He sold off state assets at bargain prices to oligarchs who in turn pledged him support, using their recently acquired media outlets, and financing his electoral campaign. They turned Russia towards a non-Western kind of kleptocracy, an activity also pursued by Yelstin’s successor, Vladimir Putin. Yet Yeltsin’s fervent pro-Americanism seemed to excuse him these excesses and the US intervened clandestinely in the 1996 election to make sure he won.
It was inevitable that this interference was later to produce a backlash of anti-Western feeling among much of the Russian people.
American leaders (and the British too—who have fought more wars than any other country in the world) appear to need an enemy, often to prop up their political support at home. The born-again, Cold War, warriors nit-picked at every Russian mistake or minor provocation. Then President Bill Clinton made the false step- one of the worst in the long history of Europe- of deciding to enlarge NATO. President George. H. W. Bush had promised Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, that NATO would not advance “by one inch” eastwards.
This was part of a deal that allowed the re-unification of Germany and for East Germany to become part of West Germany’s membership of NATO. Clinton pushed that deal on one side and rapidly signed up as NATO members former Warsaw Pact members- Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Czechoslovakia. Later presidents- George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump—extended the new NATO’s reach right up to Russia’s borders. To put it mildly, this has driven Russians mad. The anger of not just Putin but 90% of his people is tangible.
One result of this is to make a great majority of Russians (Putin does not have to whip up opinion) highly sensitive about any Western encroachment of Ukraine, which for centuries was part of Russia.
Presently the “Blob” is pushing Biden to be confrontational with Russia, using as a justification the deployment of 100,000 or so Russian troops near the Ukrainian border. For a couple of weeks, he appeared to be bending that way. More recently, Biden has altered his rhetoric, straightened out his ambiguity, and said clearly that the US will not be defending Ukraine militarily if there is a Russian invasion.
“The idea that the US is going to unilaterally use force to confront Russia invading Ukraine is not on the cards right now”, Biden told the press after his conversation with Putin on December 7. Still, very serious sanctions are being threatened.
At least Biden and Putin are talking to each other and plan to talk more regularly. This is to the good. Misunderstandings can be avoided, and dangerous military moves avoided.
Even so, Cold War 2 may have arrived. The Blob, although not getting everything it wants, is in the ascendency. The Russians have their counterparts. If the two ever tango together then it could be “goodbye”- miscalculation and over-confidence could lead to nuclear war.
Ukraine has become the tail that, with the help of the Blob, wags the Western dog. To avoid what would be the dire consequences of this, Biden and Putin need to breathe new life into the so-called Minsk agreement which committed the US, its major allies, Russia and Ukraine, to a step-by-step solution that could work to end hostilities.
The deeply corrupt, extremely nationalistic, media-controlling, Ukrainian government, has sabotaged this. Apart from enabling peace in Ukraine, this would pull the carpet from under the Blob, a necessary act if the US and its partners are in the future to contribute to a more peaceful world.
*About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written many dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com