The Cold War and the Post-Cold War World
No. 4 2011 October/December
Anatol Lieven

Director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Reflections about World Leadership

The best comment on the end of the Cold War and its consequences was made by an anonymous German wit quoted by the British novelist John Le Carre, in a joke that “the right side lost the Cold War but the wrong side won it.” This is not to suggest that Soviet Communism and American democracy were morally equivalent, because they were not. Rather, it is to point to the truly appalling failure of the United States to use in a positive way the “unipolar moment” of U.S. global dominance that followed the Soviet Union’s disappearance. Twenty years after the end of the USSR, the unipolar moment – and with it, the post-Cold War era – are now clearly over. The shape of the next era is very unclear and pretty frightening – but whatever it is, it will involve a vastly reduced level of U.S. power and influence.

Of course, the power of the U.S.A. during the “unipolar moment” was greatly exaggerated, not least by Americans themselves. I vividly remember during my time in Washington that not only neo-conservatives but Democratic intellectuals alike would make statements to the effect that “America is so powerful that it can do anything it likes in the world if it really decides it wants to.” Foreign Policy magazine had a cover story about the Bush administration’s foreign and security team with a headline that read “The Committee That Runs the World”.

This was always garbage. America’s economic domination of the world had declined steadily since what was in economic terms the truly “unipolar moment” after the Second World War. This moment was due to the fact that both Europe and Japan were economically ruined by the Second World War. Once they recovered and other major economic players entered the world stage, U.S. economic dominance, and with it, some of U.S. influence, were bound to decline. The relative decline not only of the U.S.A. but of Europe (and indeed, once energy and raw materials are excluded, of Russia) was especially inevitable as soon as major Asian countries were able successfully to develop capitalist manufacturing sectors with skilled workers who could be paid a small fraction of Western wages.

Furthermore, even at its highest point, U.S. economic dominance did not necessarily equate to military supremacy, in part because of the unwillingness of ordinary Americans to make the necessary sacrifices. Theoreticians of international power sometimes forget that in the end all power is local and relative: it is power that can be brought to bear in a particular place or on a particular issue, relative to the power that other states or forces are able and willing to bring to bear. When it came to major U.S. military operations during the Cold War, America was fought to a bloody draw in Korea, lost on points in Vietnam, and (on a much smaller scale) lost to Hezbollah in Beirut by a knockout.

Vietnam in particular looks forward to the present U.S. experience in Afghanistan, both because of the American people’s lack of appetite for long-drawn out, inconclusive foreign conflicts, but also because of the way in which, in both cases, all America’s wealth and the power of America’s ideological example did not enable America to create client states in Saigon or Kabul which would be able to win the support of their own people and defeat America’s and their own enemies without the help of U.S. ground troops. So, rather than a feature of America’s declining power in recent years, what is happening in Afghanistan can be seen as part of a long-running pattern – and of course one which also includes multiple Soviet failures to create effective client regimes in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Indeed, long before the Soviet Union collapsed, Soviet failures helped to mask the beginnings of U.S. decline. Of these, by far the greatest was of course the failure of Communism as a system of government, and in international terms the failure to maintain Communist rule and Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe without repeated military interventions. Within the Soviet Union, Communist rule depended on a combination of repression with a tissue of propagandist lies about the present and – perhaps even more importantly – the Soviet past. When these were dissolved under Gorbachev, the resulting truths helped to bring the whole system down in ruins.

In world affairs, specific Soviet defeats helped mask longer-term American problems. Thus Soviet hopes of dominating the Middle East were wrecked by President Anwar Sadat’s decision in the mid-1970s to take Egypt out of the Soviet and into the American camp. After that, America’s power in the region was dominant, and after 1991, hegemonic. Yet within the region, US power was always contested by some countries and groups, and America never succeeded in creating a stable regional security order responsive to its wishes – and of course to those of its disastrous “ally” Israel, whose actions (and U.S. lack of will to control them) constantly created new hostility to the United States.

Elsewhere in the world, Soviet defeats also masked longer term U.S. failures. Thus the economic defeat of Soviet-backed Communist guerrillas in much of Central America in the 1980s masked the failure of the U.S. to promote successful economic development, state-building and real democracy in its own backyard. The defeat of the Communists there helped reassure Americans that they could safely ignore this region – except for pressure to conform to U.S. wishes in the “war on drugs.” The result has been the gradual disintegration of states in the region – most notably Mexico – which was only recently noticed by policymakers in Washington but is beginning to pose a real threat to vital U.S. interests.

In Africa and elsewhere too, U.S. models of development and governance were faltering long before the great crisis of the U.S.-led world economic order began in 2008, in part because of America’s inability to back up its recommendations with serious aid. And, of course, for several years before the Cold War ended, the Chinese “Communist” state was laying the basis for the economic revolution which within a decade or so seems likely to replace the U.S.A. with China as the world’s biggest economy.

The single greatest factor in masking U.S. global weakness after the end of the Cold War was however a U.S. regional success, in the region to which the greatest U.S. attention had always been directed: namely in Europe. Here, the near adulation of the United States among Central European peoples liberated from Communism and the support of the governments of the region for the expansion of NATO did a tremendous amount to boost American triumphalism – a triumphalism shared by the elites of both U.S. political parties. The experience of democratization and economic reform in association with the expansion of U.S. power and influence was then treated as a paradigm that could be exported to the rest of the world. This was as true of liberals like George Soros as it was of neo-conservatives like Paul Wolfowitz.

In the process, these Americans forgot two vitally important facts specific to post-Communist Central Europe: Firstly, that the expansion both of democracy and of NATO was crucially linked to the genuine promise of European Union membership, with all the tremendous concrete economic benefits which that brought (or used to bring). Indeed, it is only in Central Europe that one can really use the Western ideological clichО of “the path to democracy and the free market” with any intellectual seriousness, in the sense of a clear path to a fixed goal: because here, the path was the EU accession process and the goal was the acquis communautaire. Elsewhere in the world, countries have always pursued many very different paths to very different goals. Secondly, the Central European peoples (and conservative populist parties) could be persuaded to swallow the often wrenchingly painful economic shifts required not only because of a faith in Western models but because of a nationalist belief that it was necessary to join the West at all costs so as to get away from and defend against Russia.

It should hardly need pointing out (but really did, when talking with many Americans of both parties in those years) that neither the Muscovite menace nor the European Union promise can be replicated when trying to promote pro-American democracy in Egypt or Pakistan. Instead – and this is a point that you were very ill-advised to make in Washington if you valued your own interests – the mass hostility which in Central Europe was directed at the former Soviet hegemon ended in the Muslim world to be directed against the United States.

However, even if one recognizes the fact that underlying U.S. weaknesses have been developing for a long time, the extent of U.S. failure in the Cold War period, and the speed of U.S. decline in recent years, have nonetheless been striking. Reinforcing U.S. decline has been that of America’s European allies. In the 1990s in Yugoslavia, the Europeans proved their incapacity for military action (though the British and French have recouped that to some extent with their successful air campaign against the forces of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya). More recently, the EU has demonstrated its inherent incapacity for economic crisis management, to the point where its single greatest project – the euro – is now in serious danger. So one can well speak of a decline not only of the U.S.A. but of the West in general.

The reasons for this are partly external, but above all reflect President Abraham Lincoln’s statement that “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves”; echoed in the words of President Eisenhower that in the last resort, “Only Americans can hurt America”. To a much lesser extent than in the case of the Soviet Union, but still to a significant extent, the seeds of the decline of U.S. power can be found in America’s own domestic system and culture.

Soviet Communism contributed to these domestic U.S. flaws, though not at all as the Soviet leadership itself imagined: not because of the Communist threat itself, but because of America’s reaction to that threat. This was obviously true of America’s military intervention in Vietnam, which produced a split in American society which has never healed to this day (and helps explain some of the pathological hatred of President Obama on the U.S. Right).

Even more important however, were two other effects on the U.S. system and the U.S. psyche. Firstly, the Communist threat, and the monstrous nature of Communist crimes, gave a tremendous boost to what the great American historian and thinker Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style” in American life. This had deeper roots in aspects of American religious and nativist thought, but grew enormously during the Cold War. Adapted by their own purposes by oligarchically-owned right-wing mass media, it became a central part of right-wing culture and was extended to any Americans whom the right wing hated.

Reinforced by racism and an apocalyptically-tinged fundamentalist religion, this has produced a situation in which a very large proportion of Republican voters believe that President Obama is a Muslim socialist, an anti-White racist or both, and a smaller but still not insignificant minority believe – I am not making this up – that he may actually be Antichrist. Not metaphorically Antichrist, or symbolically Antichrist – no, Antichrist himself, in person. Extreme Christian religious views in the U.S. help boost the pro-Israel lobby, with its truly disastrous impact on U.S. strategy and U.S. interests in the Muslim world.

This cultural legacy of the Cold War, coupled with the economic and social decline of the White middle classes, visible since the 1970s but enormously accelerated since 2008, has helped to produce the Tea Parties and the associated radicalization of the Republican Party; contributing in turn to a situation in the U.S. in which many serious issues can no longer be seriously debated by leaders of one of the two main political parties among themselves, and where any debate between the parties has ceased to be a rational exchange of opinions and become an exchange of hate-filled slogans. In turn, this has combined to truly catastrophic effect with a U.S. Constitution drawn up by a late 18th century enlightened oligarchy to provide a check on government power. Once this system of checks and balances is infused with blind partisan hatred and a Republican willingness to block at all costs even moderate measures by Democrats, the result is not only to cripple U.S. government at home but to drastically undermine the image of U.S. democracy abroad.

This hatred is due in part to the persistence in the United States of conservative religious forces which have a deep cultural and ideological hatred of many aspects of modernity itself, and regard liberal political opponents as – literally – bound for hell. Perhaps even more serious is the way in which American conservative religion is now promoting hostility to educated elites in general, including most notably scientists. This originated in hostility to secularism, and in particular of course belief in “creationism” as against “evolution”. In recent years it has tended to extend to a wider skepticism about scientists and scientific evidence, most notably in the area of climate change. This risks undermining the claim to epitomize scientific modernity which has been at the very core of America’s claim to global leadership.

While it is well known that the Soviet Union’s own crazed global ambitions and paranoia vis-З-vis the United States produced a level of Soviet military spending that the economy simply could not support, it is also true that this produced U.S. military spending which, while much lower in proportion to the much greater Soviet economy, has become more and more damaging to the American economy, in part by producing technological marvels (stealth fighters, drone aircraft) which mask America’s technological decline in other areas, and the increasingly desperate need for massive state investment in research and development. The militarized nature of the U.S. state and especially its security elites helped shape the militarized response of the Bush administration to 9/11, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The last disastrous impact of Cold War Communism on the post-Cold War world has been on the democratic Left in other parts of the world. In the first decades of the Cold War, this effect was limited because capitalist elites themselves were still deeply influenced by the experience of the Great Depression and the disasters to which it led, and recognized the need for policies of social welfare and social solidarity. Republican presidents Eisenhower and Nixon were both in many ways to the left of President Obama in this regard. As these memories faded, however, in the United States at least, the slur of Communism was used with increasing effect to discredit and even bar from serious discussion even moderate measures of social reform. The result has been a dreadful vicious circle in which the White middle-classes have suffered more and more from America’s unconstrained free market economy – and have reacted not by turning to the moderate left, but by hysterical demands for yet further deregulation, and for tax cuts for the rich which further increase social inequality and further sap the ability of the U.S. state to carry out the vital investments necessary both to regenerate the U.S. economy and to underpin U.S. global power.

The result has not only been to transform the Republican Party, but also to intimidate most Democrats from pursuing serious social or economic reforms. In Europe, meanwhile, the residual admiration of much of the intellectual Left for Soviet Communism contributed to the collapse of the Left in the 1990s, especially in France (though of course the main reason for this was deeper changes in the Western and world economies). Today, Western capitalism is facing its greatest self-generated crisis since the 1930s – and serious social democratic alternatives are nowhere to be seen outside intellectual discussions.

Rather than a straightforward case of a long struggle ending in Soviet collapse and American victory, the Cold War may perhaps be seen by future historians as a battle in which one side was indeed eventually destroyed, but the other suffered a deep wound which has permanently undermined its health. The great beneficiary both of the last two decades of the Cold War and of American errors in the Post-Cold War has been China. For a long time, China benefited enormously from the legacy of the quasi-alliance with the U.S. created in the 1970s to oppose the Soviet Union. For at least a decade after the end of the Cold War, Americans were still distracted from China’s rise by the continued obsession of much of their political and security elites with an alleged threat from Moscow. As for U.S. strategy in the Muslim world, much of it has been so bizarrely contrary to America’s own interests that it might as well have been designed by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

However, the collapse of the USSR and the decline of the United States does not by any means necessarily mean that in the next historical era we will see the global triumph of China. Firstly, even if China overtakes the U.S. economically, its economy will still be vastly smaller in both scale and global reach than was the U.S. economy at the time when the foundations of U.S. global hegemony were laid after 1945.

Secondly, it is not at all clear that the Chinese leadership is looking to imitate, challenge or replace the U.S. global role. Much has been made recently of China’s greater aggressiveness when it comes to territorial claims to islands in neighboring seas, but these are issues which stir up Chinese emotional nationalism. It is not just that this nationalism affects the Chinese military elites directly (military elites are often a bit funny that way) but that with ideological Communism now dead, it is through a mixture of economic success and nationalist appeals that the regime has sought to appeal to the masses – and as the shortest glance at the Chinese blogosphere indicates, the educated masses at least are intensely nationalist.

When it comes to the expansion of Chinese power elsewhere in the world, however, the Chinese elites remain extremely cautious. U.S. errors and failures in the Middle East would seem to give anti-U.S. forces in the Chinese establishment ample chances to expand their influence. They have not exploited them. Even when it comes to helping their old ally Pakistan, Chinese policy has been far more cautious than either some Chinese rhetoric or some U.S. fears would suggest. Even more strikingly, in October 2011 European leaders in effect begged China to come to the help of the staggering euro, something that would have given China immense influence in Europe and symbolically and actually reversed the world pattern of the past 200 years. The Chinese looked closely at the financial risks involved, and firmly said no. The United States for its part is no longer financially capable of rescuing the euro even if the U.S. Congress and people would remotely accept the sacrifices involved.

Rather than a future in which Chinese hegemony will replace that of the United States, therefore, we seem to be rapidly entering a world in which no country will exercise anything resembling true world leadership. This bears a sinister resemblance to the 1920s, when the United States had replaced Britain as the world’s leading economic power, but was wholly unwilling to shoulder additional burdens of global leadership. U.S. capitalism then engaged in a frenzy of capitalist speculation which undermined first its own economy and then that of the whole world. Even at their worst, the results for the world are unlikely to be so bad this time round, because great powers do not harbor forces of insane totalitarian fascism or communism with aspirations to conquer and transform the world. Or at least, so we must hope and pray.