The End of the Cold War and the Acquisition of Meaning
No. 1 2009 January/March
Alexander Kramarenko

Director of  Development, Russian International Affairs Council.

The end of the Cold War caught many people by surprise on both
sides of the infamous Iron Curtain. It bred a euphoria that was not
a substitute for sober analysis, which simply seemed to be uncalled
for at the time. The awareness came much later that the world had
entered an unprecedented transitional period in its development
that would obviously result in an intellectual challenge. These
moods were summarized in a call to formulate a shared vision of the
new historical era. The crisis of U.S. foreign policy, boldly
manifested in “war of choice” in Iraq, sent a signal of alarm. It
seemed that a country that had emerged victorious from the Cold War
should not undergo this crisis. Yet we are now seeing a global
financial and economic crisis rooted in the ideologies and
practices of how the U.S. financial sector functioned over the past
two decades. It shows convincingly that one-sided solutions and
actions cannot bring any of the so-called public goods to the
international community. On the contrary, solutions are not being
found to existing problems and new ones are springing up.

Presumably, the riddle of the current stage of global
development cannot be solved unless one gleans the meaning of what
happened at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. It
would not be an overstatement to claim in this connection that the
problem of what the future has in store for the U.S. – which has
become the façade of the historical West – will be of key


The results of the 2008 U.S. presidential election expressly
show that Americans have acknowledged the need for change. The
question is what kind of change and how fast it will materialize.
There are grounds to believe that the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon
Protestant) factor in the U.S. has reached a critical juncture in
its onward evolution that lasted four centuries. Like Russia, the
U.S. can only change on its own, but, quite obviously, also by
interacting with the rest of the world. All the international
partners of the U.S. will have to recognize this reality and
display an understanding of the complexity and painfulness of
transformations in that great country.

Opinions differ widely over what kind of America the world
really needs. For instance, Dominique Moisi, a senior advisor at
the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI), claims
that the world needs the Old America that has been lost. Boston
University professor Andrew Bacevich sounds more convincing when he
recommends proceeding from the postulation that “transforming the
United States was likely to prove an easier task than transforming
the world” (Foreign Affairs, July/August, 2008). In other words,
the case in hand is to integrate oneself – along with all the
others – into a markedly new phase of global development heralded
in by the Cold War and its conclusion.

Since the Cold War was not followed by any meaningful
international debate that could have helped understand the
importance of the changes that had taken place, the U.S. political
class came to mistaken conclusions about international affairs and,
above all, the economy and finance. The latter sector also
witnessed the prevalence of inertia and a willingness for
generalization on a global scale. This could be seen, for instance,
in an attempt to force the Europeans to pursue a tougher U.S.-style
social and economic model through the Lisbon agenda for the EU. It
appears that the line of socialization of Western Europe’s economic
development during the Cold War had been a tactical stratagem
dictated exclusively by geopolitical considerations, above all, the
necessity to respond to “the Soviet Union’s challenge.” Moreover,
U.S. political leaders embarked on dismantling the balance between
the market forces and state regulation of the economy that had
taken shape at the end of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New
Deal. The policy of deregulation was launched during the presidency
of George H.W. Bush and it unavoidably spilled over to other
Western countries. The degree to which the barriers in the way of
the free market were eliminated actually largely foretold to what
extent one or another country was afflicted with the crisis.

As regards structural overhaul of the economy, the U.S. seems to
have missed the chance offered by the end of the Cold War much like
the Soviet Union missed the opportunity to launch broad social and
economic reforms in the mid-1970s. For decades, the U.S.
transformational potential rested on benevolence, which stemmed
from the opportunity to resolve its problems thanks to its
privileged position in the global financial system. This allowed
the Americans to live beyond their means – the combined federal
budget deficit and the current accounts balance amounted to 8
percent of GDP, or $1 trillion, in recent years. This course ran
counter to the foundations of U.S. morals that had emerged from
Puritan ethics.

That is why the election of Barack Obama as president could not
be something accidental; much like the arrival of the George W.
Bush administration to the White House, which accelerated the
complex process of America’s self-destruction, had not been
accidental. The shock from the distresses that embraced the finance
sector – the most vulnerable for the American consciousness – has
set the scene for launching a radical transformation of the
country. Everything will depend on how big the revolutionary
potential of the new administration really is. The main thing is
not to regard these painful shocks as the U.S. having lost the
fight. They should be seen as the results of an obsolete system and
a hawkish ideology that have outlived themselves and that failed to
meet modern requirements. An approach of this kind helped Russia
overcome its national disaster after the disintegration of the
Soviet Union, recognize the causes of what had happened, draw
conclusions, and rise to its feet again.

It is important to remember that the Soviet Union and the U.S.
had much in common during the Cold War: their foreign policies were
equally ideologized; they both put emphasis on official propaganda,
conformism and patriotism; and they both abided by the same
categories of political rationality. I trust the correctness of
claims that history eliminates – one after another – the extremes
of social development represented by various products of Western
liberal thought. One such extreme was Soviet ideology, manifested
in the rejection of private ownership, the socialization of
property and command management of the economy. The U.S.
represented the opposite extreme – the boundless freedom of private
enterprise. This means that the current crisis in the U.S falls
into the same category as the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The U.S. will probably emerge from its deep transformation as a
basically new country, one that it has never been seen before, with
the exception of the ingenuous glimpses of people like Franklin D.
Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower or John F. Kennedy. They all
recognized a multipolar world as something inescapable and realized
the danger stored in the militarization of foreign policy and the
economy, and this understanding put them closer to the Europeans,
whose outlook had been shaped by the end of the Cold War.

It would be the least desirable to see “the Americans’
instinctive wish to be left alone” (Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent
Scowcroft. America and the World. Basics Books, New York, 2008, p.
35). prevail in this situation. Zbigniew Brzezinski’s vision of the
U.S. leading role as a catalyst of collective action that the
international community is ready to undertake appears to hold
water. This role will require a considerable renovation of U.S.
society towards “greater enlightenment.” This prompts the
conclusion that tangible changes in U.S. policies can only result
from America’s own genuine transformation.


The pivotal point in global development inevitably makes one
turn to the philosophy of history; otherwise the essence of current
events will be impossible to understand. A superficial analysis
leads to mistaken strategies. This is graphically illustrated by
the calls for the West’s civilizational solidarity for “the defense
of Western values and lifestyle,” although one can clearly see that
the global financial crisis is, first and foremost, a crisis of the
Western lifestyle no longer supported by intellectual or other

“The 500-year global domination by the Atlantic powers is coming
to an end,” Zbigniew Brzezinski believes (International Herald
Tribune, December 17, 2008). It is here that the fundamental issue
of Russia and the West comes into the spotlight. In essence, we
shared all the tragedies that swept Europe in the 20th century –
the continent’s “twilight period” when the Western part of the
continent set the tune for the development of all European
civilization. An opportunity has arisen with the end of the Cold
War for genuine collective decision-making in the Euro-Atlantic
region, but this is inconceivable without Russia’s equal

Back in 1918, Oswald Spengler spoke about “the decline of the
West,” implying the final stage of existence of the
West-European/American culture. He linked this stage of the
transformation of culture into civilization to imperialism and
presumed it would follow the Roman-Puritan-Prussian line.

Yet history has proven the essential bankruptcy of the claims of
Greater Prussia – which Germany turned into through Bismarck’s will
– for imperial leadership. In reality, a united Germany became a
tool for the destruction of Old Europe and this was convincingly
shown by the outcome of both World Wars. In actual life and in the
conditions of democracy, German heroism (as opposed to English
mercantilism) combined with the Prussian spirit eventually bred
Nazism – which Spengler could witness himself.

In fact, Nietzscheanism, which advanced the cult of the
Übermensch (Superman, or Overman), and declared the “death of
God,” could not produce anything else. The Russian writers Fyodor
Tyutchev and Fyodor Dostoyevsky foresaw the stalemate of Western
anthropocentrism. Remarkably, they did so even before Spengler,
whose analysis was torn off – and not by accident – from the
Christian roots of European civilization. As for the fruit born of
European civilization, it has become obvious that the entire range
of current global problems is a product of the five centuries of
Western dominance in politics, the economy and finance.

Incidentally, Spengler’s skepticism caused an allergic reaction
among Russia’s Bolshevist leaders as well. They had their own ideas
of what concerned breathing new life into European civilization and
making it more universal – along the lines of a “world revolution.”
Here lies the deep-rooted commonality of Bolshevism and the idea of
“the historical West,” which permits a view of the Cold War as a
method of Europe’s global domination.

The problem of the historical West is especially acute on the
other side of the Atlantic because the burdens of politics grounded
in the instincts and prejudices of the past have proven to be the
heaviest there. It is hard to escape the conclusion that we have
been witnessing the Spenglerian “internal destruction” of the
failed Western global empire. Even though the unipolar world
existed at the level of mythology, it had an influence on
international relations. Many countries were spellbound by the
image of the only hyperpower, believing that it actually existed,
and that is why the empire did exist, albeit in a sketch

Spengler’s theory is still relevant merely for the fact that it
helps to understand a lot in European and world history. Without
intending to make accounts to the West, one nevertheless has to
admit the huge costs of the Western freedom from moral imperatives
– Nazism, two World Wars, the Cold War, and the current global
financial crisis. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winning
economist, said that this crisis has been bred by “the toxic mix of
special interests, misguided economics and right-wing ideologies,”
as well as the faith that investment banks and ratings agencies had
in the “financial alchemy” (The Guardian, September 30,
2008),  which differed little from the one practiced by
financial pyramids in England and Holland in the early 18th
century. In other words, liberal capitalism has gone full circle.
That is why it is really difficult to believe in the possibility of
a return to the state of affairs “as before,” or as if nothing has
happened. At any rate, the uniqueness of the first crisis in the
era of globalization calls for greater caution in forecasts.

The international community has been idly watching the
frustration of balances in the global system for too long. Crises
and instability will continue to plague the world while the general
rules of the game are absent. A smooth landing is only possible if
all the players that have the considerable potential and resources
necessary for implementing coordinated decisions become engaged in
the game. The legitimacy of any system of global governance will be
determined by its efficiency – in counteraction to the new
challenges and threats common for all countries.

If this is the case, all of European civilization will be
rejuvenated, not decline, on a truly collective basis. Anyone can
see plainly that the tragic experience of the 20th century has
transformed Western Europe into something compatible with other
cultures and civilizations. This shows through in the integration
processes within Europe; its apparent reluctance to wage wars
outside its borders (this is proven by Washington’s endless
complaints against its NATO allies); and the desire to consolidate
international legitimacy. This mild non-aggressive worldview unites
Russia with the vast majority of European countries and one may
expect that the U.S. will choose this path as well, after it draws
conclusions from its political experience of the past few years.
Interesting enough, even a politician as pro-Atlantic as former
British prime minister Tony Blair has developed an understanding of
the need for “peaceful coexistence of the global society in which
we live” on the basis of a broad spectrum of values that would
include, apart from democracy and the market, “the common good,
compassion, and justice” (International Herald Tribune, December
18, 2008).

But the most optimistic factor is that in the greenhouse
conditions of the Cold War, the greater part of Europe has
elaborated a socially-oriented model of economic development and a
broad representative democracy relying on a sizable middle class.
Russia, too, has opted for this path. America’s middle class rose
out of the post-World War II demobilization programs and FDR’s New
Deal aimed at attaining the same objective. As The Economist
magazine wrote, state regulation had existed in the U.S. economy
even before the George W. Bush administration launched its latest
measures, specifically the government’s sponsorship of the
system-building mortgage corporations Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Therefore, the biggest danger posed by this crisis is the potential
blow to this class and, consequently, to all the achievements of
European civilization that laid the groundwork for domestic peace
in postwar Europe. Maintaining the middle class and the
achievements of European civilization can provide the only
guarantee to prevent the materialization of Spengler’s forecast for
an “inward decline of the nations into a formless population” and a
“slowly thrusting up of primitive human conditions into the
highly-civilized mode of living.” Elements of this can easily be
seen in Europe’s 20th-century history.

The systemic nature of the crisis of the historical West is
acknowledged by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. He
believes the extolment of neo-liberal individualism has proven that
there is a “historical impasse” and that the future lies in
developing the theory of democracy along the European path. In any
event, this is not the end of the road, as we are dealing with a
radical transformation capable of giving a new lease on life to
European civilization at a new stage of historical development
while maintaining the fundamentals of the market system and

This scenario requires a return to the Westphalian principles of
international relations. One should remember that the 17th century
exodus to America by the Puritans and other bellicose Protestants –
unwilling to accept the compromise offered to them at the end of
the revolution in England – imparted Europe with an opportunity to
live by the Westphalian rules, which placed value-related and
religious distinctions outside the interstate format. The return of
the U.S. to European politics made it extremely politicized during
the Cold War. Now it is time to part with this aberration and to
begin living by European rules of tolerance.

History means too much to neglect its lessons today. Of genuine
interest in this respect are the documents related to the Munich
Agreement. Seventy years have passed, but these documents still
remain classified. Is there really something worth concealing?
These documents could shed some light on the degree to which
efforts by London and Paris to appease Hitler were motivated by an
unwillingness to go to war and the ideology behind the Agreement;
i.e. the eagerness of the ruling classes to channel Nazi aggression
to the East and thus avoid finding a solution to the overripe
problem of the transformation of European society. This
transformation became possible only after World War II and took the
form of a geopolitical imperative of the Cold War.


Every great nation – and Russia and the U.S. in particular – has
its own mission in history, with national crises and disasters
sending the signal if the mission is accomplished. It is important
to consider not only the missions that have been accomplished, but
also those that will follow suit. If one looks at Russia’s role in
European construction – that is, its mission in Europe – one cannot
but help agreeing with Pyotr Stegny who says that Russia’s
inclusion in the Westphalian system was prompted by its growing
relevance in European affairs on the geopolitical, economic,
cultural and civilizational planes (Pyotr Stegny. Comprehending a
Shared History. Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn, 10/2008).

Russia and the Soviet Union accomplished a mission of a historic
scale, at least in what concerns the shaping of the political map
of Eastern Europe where all the countries, including the former
Soviet republics, have acquired clear-cut borders. This is in
addition to the main mission – the disruption of two attempts to
unify Europe by force that were made by Napoleonic France and
Hitler’s Germany. This accomplishment made it possible to build
today’s Europe. Who else could counteract Napoleon and Hitler on
the ground as efficiently? In other words, in all previous eras,
including the Cold War, Russia had the mission of cutting short
“the flight of the Faustian soul into Limitless Space” in
international relations.

It is too early to declare an end to Russia’s geopolitical
mission – as it is equally inappropriate to speak of the “end of
history.” However, the radically changing globalized world will
force all leading countries to reformulate their missions. Russia
continues to shoulder the burden of maintaining strategic stability
– a carryover mission of the Cold War era. Tyutchev’s idea that
“Russia’s very existence denies the future of the West” has gained
a new meaning. Whatever role Russia had in disrupting the West’s
project of a global empire/world revolution after the end of the
Cold War, its foreign policy independence makes any dominance on
the Euro-Atlantic or the global scale impossible. The alternatives
promulgated by Russia – equal interaction with the EU and the U.S.,
the general political unity of European civilization and the
collective leadership of the world’s leading powers – make up the
content of this country’s historic mission at the new stage. The
demand for such changes was proven at the G-20 Washington Summit,
which is widely regarded as a de facto expansion of the financial

The crux of the matter is bigger than what Martin Gilman said
about the importance for donor countries, including Russia, to set
the tune in the current financial system in the same way that the
U.S. did during the rise of Bretton Woods institutions (Vremya
Novostei, November 11, 2008), although he is right too. A
collective effort by all the main players towards reforming the
present architecture in order to secure the world against similar
crises in the future has much more importance now than the wish to
emerge from the crisis ahead of everyone else.

The missions of other leading global players, like the U.S.,
have not been exhausted either – they are simply undergoing a
reformulation. If “the promulgation of freedom and democracy”
implies a historic mission, then the best way to accomplish it
would be to set one’s own example. It would be a good thing if the
U.S. fought global poverty, developed alternative sources of
energy, and resolved the entire spectrum of human problems, thus
creating conditions for the normal internal development of all
countries. One can hardly disagree with Fyodor Lukyanov when he
said that the idea of democracy should be defended against efforts
to transform it into a tool to serve geopolitical ambitions.

Renouncing the official revolutionary mythology would bring
benefits too, not least because the latter blesses political
violence. How should one fight terrorism if it picks up slogans of
terror from the annals of European and North American history?
Russia has renounced these myths and European countries are doing
so in one measure or another as well, but the U.S. is taking its
time. Is it because the entire exclusiveness of America’s global
mission is rooted in the myths of its War of Independence?

As Roger Cohen writes, “it has been hard to grasp in Washington
that the same forces […] that helped deliver the United States to
the post-Cold-War zenith of its power […] have now democratized
power” (International Herald Tribune, December 16, 2008). An
ever-growing number of countries are becoming engaged in the
creation of history – independently or as part of various forums or
integrating associations like the G8, the G-20, the EU, the
Shanghai Cooperation Organization or BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India
and China). Objective conditions are taking shape for a new moment
of convergence in the Euro-Atlantic region – on the basis of
civilizational products that can be proudly offered to the world.
The same goes for the task of establishing collective leadership of
the European civilization in global affairs (Sergei Lavrov.
Face-to-Face With America: Between Non-Confrontation and
Convergence. Profile, October 13, 2008).

Standing in this line is the settlement of differences over the
patchy architecture of European security. The idea of a European
Security Treaty allows the security interests of the entire
Euro-Atlantic family to be drawn together. Attempts to preserve the
status quo will only produce gleaming new holes, the same way it
happened with the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe or
may happen yet unless Russia and NATO manage to rebuild trust in
their relations. Sergei Karaganov was quite correct in asking if
Russia should continue to help the alliance by keeping up the
pretence of good relations with it (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, December 9,
2008). And what will happen to the Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) if Moscow withholds its interested
participation in that forum? Will many European organizations not
lose a greater part of their meaningfulness in the absence of close
contacts with Moscow? Discussion about the treaty could help clear
up these issues and, above all, tap a general answer to the main
question of our time – the one about its meaning.

It is very unlikely that Russia’s recognition of the
independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia produced a bigger crisis
in its relations with the EU and the U.S. than the unilateral
declaration of independence by Kosovo, which the Europeans and
Americans supported. If anyone should refer to a crisis, this is
most obviously a continuing crisis of misunderstanding that calls
for joint handling on both sides.

A clear indicator of this is Washington’s propensity to cite
China’s cautious conduct as an example for Russia to follow.
However, unlike Russia, China is not a member of the Euro-Atlantic
community and is not bound to the U.S. by a strategic stability
relationship – the latter sphere contains all the points of
Russian-U.S. contradictions. Moscow simply cannot overlook the
issues that Beijing can keep silent on, since Russia’s vital
interests are at stake.

Implementing opportunities for collective action could play a
decisive role in restoring the governability of global development
in its current critical phase after the financial and economic
crisis cleans the Augean stable of the entire international system
inherited from the past and makes the rise of a new system