Lessons from the Cold War

There are many lessons from the Cold War, today’s leaders need to study. Humanity’s survival in that conflict can show us how to handle 21st Century crises.

I do not consider today’s international conflicts a “New Cold War,” because there is no massive ideological gulf between the United States, Russia, and China, as there was during the Cold War. To clarify, all three nations are capitalist and imperialistic, and two of them; Russia and the USA, try to be democratic.

Instead, today’s situation is far more complex and dangerous. Frighteningly, I think the current world situation looks like Europe on the eve of World War I. To explain, in 1914 six empires with similar governments; and few ideological differences, were jockeying for power in Europe.

Is it Cold War II or World War One All Over Again?

World War I began because six European powers; the British Empire, the German Empire, the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, France, and the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) allowed a minor conflict to spin out of control.

Interestingly, three of the powers fighting in World War I; Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the United Kingdom, were constitutional monarchies with limited democracies and capitalist economies. Oddly, the one big absolute monarchy in Europe; Russia, allied itself with the democratic French Republic. Meanwhile, Europe’s only military dictatorship; Turkey, was allied with quasi-democratic Germany and Austria-Hungary.

As in 1914, today’s great powers are fighting over money, power, resources, and influence, not ideology. There are ideological difference between today’s great powers but they are nowhere near as deep or as divisive as those of the Cold War era. However, the Cold War offers some interesting lessons for us today.

Important Lessons from the Cold War

Lesson One: Diplomacy and Friendship will not Resolve Ideological Differences

People of good faith on both sides of the Cold War made many efforts to resolve the conflict through diplomacy and appeals to common humanity.

Those efforts failed because they ignored the fundamental ideological differences between the United States, Europe, India, the People’s Republic of China, and the Soviet Union. Notably, individual leaders; Reagan and Gorbachev, Nixon and Mao, and Mao and Nehru, established personal relationships, but the conflict dragged on.

The conflict between the United States and China only ended when Deng Xiaoping abandoned Marxist economics. Moreover, the conflict between the United States, Western Europe, and the Soviet Union only ended when Communism collapsed.

In fact, efforts to make peace by ignoring ideological differences, often made things worse. For example, Indian Prime Minister Jemal Nehru’s friendship with Mao Zedong probably encouraged that dictator to attack India in 1962. To clarify, Mao, like Adolph Hitler at Munich, saw Nehru’s diplomacy as weakness to exploit rather than peacemaking.

Conversely, US President Ronald Reagan (R-California) established an effective relationship with Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev because he had no illusions about the USSR. Notably, Reagan branded the Soviet Union the Evil Empire and believed Communism was a crime against humanity.

Yet Reagan’s acceptance of real ideological differences enabled him and Gorbachev to establish a productive relationship and sign effective arms control treaties. Nehru’s naivete; however, left India unprepared for Communist aggression.

Given this history, any effective relationships in today’s world will have to acknowledge the genuine ideological differences between the great powers. Most Americans, for example, see non-democratic governments as illegitimate. Some Chinese leaders; on the other hand, view democracy as an anachronism that belongs in the ash heap of history.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin, appears to believe in 19th Century style white Christian supremacy and Great Russian Imperialism. Interestingly, ideological differences are at the root of the dispute in the Ukraine.

To explain, Putin does not accept borders set by Soviet leaders because he does not view the Soviet Union as a legitimate Russian government. My guess is Putin views the Soviet leaders as a gang of terrorists who murdered the Tsar and betrayed Russia. Thus, Putin feels free to violate Ukraine’s borders, to reclaim historic Russian territory conquered by the Tsars, the Crimea.

Strangely, Putin is no threat to Alaska because a Russian leader whose authority he accepts, Czar Alexander II sold that territory to the United States. The Crimea; on the other hand, was given to the Ukraine by a Soviet Leader; whom Putin views as illegitimate Nikita Khrushchev, in the 1950s.

For instance, the Ukraine could recognize Russia’s claims in the Crimea in exchange for a Russian apology for Stalin’s crimes against the Ukrainian people. Since both Putin and the Ukrainians probably view Stalin as a war criminal, they could easily agree to that settlement.

The Mao/Nixon and Reagan/Gorbachev relationships prove leaders can work together despite ideological differences. Unfortunately, the leaders have to admit those differences exist before they can establish productive relationships.

Lesson Two Alliances Lead to War

Alliances between the so-called superpowers and weak third-rate powers caused three of the most dangerous Cold War battles.

 First, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev triggered the Cuban Missile Crisis by allying the USSR with the buffoon Fidel Castro. To explain, Khrushchev felt honor bound to defend Castro’s Cuban Revolution from American Imperialism. Consequently, Khrushchev dispatched troops and nuclear weapons to Cuba, even though helping that nation served no Russian interests.

Khrushchev could have prevented the Cuban Missile Crisis by ignoring Castro, or offering token support; such as a UN resolution condemning American imperialism. Instead, Khrushchev nearly caused nuclear war by allowing an egotistical, and possibly insane, small-time dictator to control Soviet foreign policy because of a point of honor.

Second, the United States caused the pointless deaths of up to 3.1 million people by allying itself with South Vietnam. Like Khrushchev in Cuba, American leaders became honor bound to protect the South Vietnamese dictatorship from Communism.

Just as there were no Russian interests at stake in Cuba, there were no American interests under threat in Vietnam. However, the United States had become honor bound to defend South Vietnam even though its leaders were corrupt, incompetent, and unpopular. In fact, you can make a good case that Vietnam weakened America’s Cold War effort against the Soviet Union.

Eventually, 58,200 Americans, 4,000 South Koreans, 350 Thais, 500 Australians, and up to 3.1 million Vietnamese died because of America’s effort to defend Vietnam from Communism. Bizarrely, Vietnam became a Communist nation anyway in 1975, and after 1989 a nominal American ally.

Third, 15,000 Soviet soldiers died fighting in Afghanistan to protect an unpopular Communist government between 1979 and 1989. Like the Americans in Vietnam, Soviet leaders felt honor bound to protect an allied government with no popular support.

Eventually, the Soviet puppet state in Afghanistan; like the American puppet state in Vietnam, collapsed after Russian troops left. Moreover, many historians believe the fighting in Afghanistan fatally weakened the USSR and hastened its collapse.

The lesson for us today, that alliances lead to war because they obligate Great Power to fight weaker powers’ battles for them. Additionally, small powers often become aggressive and belligerent because they think the Great Power has their back.

For example, Fidel Castro, became increasingly obnoxious in his anti-Americanism because he thought the Red Army would fight his battles for him. Therefore, great powers need to be careful what allies they pick and to keep those allies on a short leash.

This history makes Vladimir Putin’s habit of maintaining close relationships with dictators like Syria’s Bashir Assad and Venezuela’s Nicholas Maduro frightening. Stupidly, Putin has already sent troops to shore up his incompetent friend Assad.

Likewise, the American alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia could be a recipe for catastrophe. Saudi Arabia, in particular, could lure America into a nasty little war in Yemen. Frighteningly, The American Conservative’s Michael Horton thinks the Saudis are trying to get America to fight their war for them.

We need to watch alliances, because World War I began as a dispute between a second-rate power; Austria-Hungary, and a third-rate power; Serbia. To explain, Serbia’s leaders felt free to launch terrorist attacks on the Austrian Empire because they had an alliance with Russia. One of those terrorist attacks eventually killed the heir to the Austrian Imperial Throne and his wife.

In retaliation, the Austrians felt free to invade Serbia because they had an alliance with Germany. Unfortunately, the Russians felt free to take Serbia’s side because they had an alliance with France.

Meanwhile, France had an alliance with Britain which encouraged that nation to challenge the far more powerful German Empire. The inevitable result an all-out war that destroyed the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Lesson Three: War is not Inevitable or Unavoidable

The most important lesson of the Cold War is that war is not inevitable or unavoidable.

When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, the belief that World War III or nuclear Armageddon was inescapable was widespread. Books, movies, television shows, intellectuals, political speeches, and comic books were constantly warning us that the world will end next week.

In fact, many of my high school classmates expected to see the Red Army marching through Denver within a decade. Most of the others thought they would die in a nuclear war or end up living in a Mad Max movie. They laughed at guys like me who said the Soviet Union was a paper tiger that would fall apart.

Importantly, the doomsayers were all wrong. There was no nuclear holocaust or Communist conquest of the United States; two popular future scenarios in the 1980s. Instead, Communism collapsed and governments scrapped most of the nukes to save money.

Moreover, even at the height of the Cold War, leaders like Nixon, Nehru, Mao, Reagan, and Gorbachev put aside their differences and made peace. Ironically, Reagan; whom the intellectuals widely lampooned as a warmongering cowboy in the 1980s, did more for arms control than any other American president.  

Consequently, settling today’s disputes between the Great Powers, which are far smaller than those of the Cold War, should be easy. However, today’s leaders lack the constant fear of nuclear holocaust to spur them to take dramatic steps towards peace.

Instead, the lack of serious differences could make the situation worse by convincing leaders that no dialogue or restraint is necessary. As a history buff that reminds of Europe before World War I.

Notably, Europe’s statesmen were so confident that many of them were on vacation in August 1914; when were war broke out. By the time the leaders got back to the office, the armies were mobilizing for war.

During the Cold War; however, people were frightened and constantly watching for trouble. Thus, the crisis never occurred because they settled problems before they could spiral out of control.

Today, on the other hand, the world is full of dangerous flashpoints nobody is watching. Frightening trouble spots include, the Ukraine, the Crimea, the South China Sea, Kashmir, Syria, Central Asia, the Persian Gulf, and Venezuela to name a few. Any of these places could become a Thucydides Trap.

Thus, one of the world’s greatest challenges is to reacquire the sense of attentiveness and urgency leaders had during the Cold War. Unfortunately, reacquiring that urgency will be hard without a compelling ideological conflict or a near catastrophe like the Cuban Missile Crisis.

There is no second Cold War but there is much we can learn from the original Cold War. Hopefully, today’s leaders can learn those lessons before it is too late.