It was 24 years ago, in June 1987, that Ronald Reagan gave his famous speech calling on Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall.” In 1990, a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the foundations that had undergirded world politics for decades were likewise crumbling, John Mearsheimer penned his celebrated article: “Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War.” In the years since, the article has come to embody a specific, nostalgic lament. Yet, viewing Mearsheimer through the prism of today’s circumstances, one must ask: is it really the Cold War that we miss?
It’s important to clarify that Mearsheimer’s piece is not exactly what many caricaturize it to be. Notably, the article is focused, to the exclusion of all else, on the dynamics of security and stability in Europe after the collapse of the Soviet empire. What the Cold War had given Europe, Mearsheimer argued, was a cure for the “untamed anarchy” that had plagued the continent for so many centuries. With that ballast eroding away, you’d likely see the resurrection of old interstate rivalries and quite possibly nuclear proliferation in the region. In the end, whether we got the old Europe of constant warring or a nuclearized Europe with a problematic multi-polar deterrence, we would almost certainly “miss the Cold War.”
Looking back on it, the utter Euro-centrism in Dr. Mearsheimer’s most famous (or infamous) piece of writing seems positively quaint. That’s a point that has been made often. Critics have been unrelenting.
What’s even more striking, though, is how Mearsheimer could have been so right for such wrong reasons.
We do certainly miss the Cold War, but not because Europe, in the intervening years, has reverted to its 18th-century self. It obviously hasn’t. No, the reasons are very different from those anticipated by Mearsheimer.
The comparison of today’s circumstances to those of the Cold War has taken on an unexpected tone. This is because much that has occurred in the last couple decades has superficially confirmed a liberal myth which has mollified liberal sensibilities.
The myth is that the world in which we live today is—by orders of magnitude—more vexing and dynamic than at any time during the Cold War. Today, it is said, the actors and issues are far more complex than those of the past. So, the clarity of purpose and the unanimity of cause enjoyed during the Cold War are but faint memories in today’s world of twitter-fed revolutions, small-group led geopolitical transformations, crisscrossing political identities, and so many shades of moral gray all around. In short, Cold War politics were relatively straightforward compared to the confusing, inchoate mess that our leaders have to deal with today.
In truth, both sides of this characterization are straw men. The Cold War certainly did dominate world politics from the late 1940s through the early 1990s. This certainly did have the effect of focusing a great deal of the world’s attention on geopolitical struggles of the largest scale. But there were also many vagaries, conflicting values, confounding issues, differing identities, rising non-state actors, and complex domestic political issues aplenty. In other words, there was some intellectual room for U.S. presidents to decide not to fight the Cold War, or to at least hem and haw and equivocate. But only one—Jimmy Carter—really did.
Fast forward to today. Let’s concede that the world in 2011 is complex and dynamic. Let’s concede that we lack the simplicity of superpower bipolarity. But is it really all that unclear today what America’s existential struggle is all about? Is it really so difficult to determine who and what seeks our destruction and the obliteration of the very Western way of life? Do we really not have enough clarity to allow us to call the Fort Hood shooter an Islamic extremist and terrorist? Is there so much gray that we can’t reasonably call for congressional hearings focused on understanding the roots of homegrown Islamic extremism? Are we really so unsure of the threat facing us and the moral standing to confront it that we can’t even call the problem what it is?
One of my favorite quotes in Mearsheimer’s article is also its most ironic passage. While reviewing a litany of things that we will not miss about the Cold War, Mearsheimer predicted, “we will not wake up one day to discover fresh wisdom in the collected fulminations of John Foster Dulles.” Perhaps not. But remember this: Dulles advocated for the aggressive containment of communism at a time which also saw the rise of far left constituencies in America that sought to minimize the Soviet threat and undermine our very Cold War posture.
Alas, that gets to the crux of the issue.
Yes, we miss the Cold War. But what we miss far more are leaders who unabashedly trumpet American exceptionalism and who are willing to recognize a fundamental distinction between good and evil. The Cold War didn’t produce a nebulous, multi-cultural, politically correct, morally relativistic foreign policy, though it could have. Neither should the problems that face the country today. There’s no doubt about what America’s core threats are. We just need leaders who have the sense to eschew moral equivalency and face them.
So, in reality, it’s not the Cold War that we miss; just the Cold Warriors. We could use a little John Foster Dulles right now.