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A Sad Lack of Reflection on Cold War

Feb 28, 2020
  • Dong Chunling

    Deputy Director, Office of the Center for the Study of a Holistic View of National Security, CICIR

The 56th Munich Security Conference concluded recently, after focusing on “Westlessness,” a notion that reflects the profound strategic anxiety of Europe. Facing the rise of emerging countries and a shift in political and economic focus to Asia globally — and given the impact of “America First” and Brexit — countries that had been comfortably at center stage since the Age of Discovery have suddenly realized that Western centrism is in decline. Those countries, which had been closely united by the Cold War, have suddenly come to realize that their unity has fragmented in the wake of losing their common enemy, the USSR.

The security conference was born in 1963 during the Cold War in the Federal Republic of Germany, which was at the forefront of East-West confrontation. It was originally a platform for discussing transatlantic relations and NATO defense cooperation. While the Cold War is long over, the conference has continued and is today one of the most important international conferences on strategic security, with more non-Western countries participating. It also plays an increasingly important role in global security governance.

At the recent conference, the United States brought the largest delegation ever. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said it was Western ideals that kept the West together and that the West was winning under U.S. leadership. He called on U.S. allies to assume more security obligations and jointly respond to the challenges posed by non-Western powers such as China, Russia and Iran.

Also at the meeting, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper attributed China’s ascent to its embrace of the West but said China had turned to a non-Western path and was now the principal challenger that the West needed to work together to address.

Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, said the European market’s acceptance of Huawei’s 5G technology amounted to acceptance of China’s digital autocracy and would ultimately undermine Western political systems. She called for a joint boycott of Huawei.

All this shows that Westlessness — and the anxiety it represents — is the product of distortions, which are guided and amplified by the growing power competition between China and the United States. It is seen as based on ideals, with the United States once again calling on the West to combine again and to win as it did in the Cold War.

For a long time, the West has not lacked for reflection on the Cold War, but in most cases, those reflections start with the conclusion that “the West was the winner of the Cold War.” The focus has been on why the Soviet Union failed. Many scholars regard the West’s  containment policy and the superiority of Western systems as the key, and they see the West-led unipolar world and the end of history as the fruit of victory.

In fact, the United States’ victory without a fight in the Cold War was an accident, partly due to the fact that the other party withdrew on its own accord. A major strategic mistake arising from this misunderstanding is that the West treated Russia as a defeated country throughout the 1990s and continued to dismember the Soviet Union and constrict Russia’s strategic space through an eastward expansion of the European Union, NATO and color revolutions. This led Russia, which at that time wanted to be a member of the West, to firmly embark on a path leading to its status as an independent Eurasian power.

Another easily overlooked fact is that there was really no Cold War winner. The vicious competition spanning more than 40 years was a tragedy in human history, with both superpowers paying a high price. The Soviet Union disintegrated, Russia’s economy suffered a severe recession and its people’s livelihoods withered. The former Soviet Union and parts of Eastern Europe became hot spots of regional conflict and turbulence that have continued to affect European security and stability.

In addition, the confrontation between the two camps claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Americans and led the United States to increase its defense spending by $8 trillion. The political persecution of the McCarthy era disrupted many Americans’ jobs and lives. The huge consumption of financial resources triggered a severe economic downturn in the United States in the 1980s. Millions of people died during the confrontation between the two camps on the front lines of the Cold War in Europe and in the battlefields of the many proxy wars that took place in the Third World.

Many scholars, including George Kennan, the father of the U.S. containment policy, have acknowledged that the Cold War was a shameful chapter in the history of American diplomacy.

Another consequence of the lack of collective reflection on the Cold War victory is that this section of history was written into history as an example of Western glory and has been cited as an example of the superiority of Western systems. The resulting institutional confidence and Cold War mentality formed a sort of inert foundation of thought for some Western policymakers.

The Berlin Wall has been down for 30 years, but the Iron Curtain has not disappeared from some people’s minds. Many of those who grew up during the Cold War have occupied key positions in foreign policymaking. The mindset for observing the world that they have developed over decades still influences the way many people look at international relations and how they analyze and judge things. The Cold War orientation is even used by many politicians as a tool for political mobilization and policy.

The Cold War mentality has at least four typical manifestations:

First is to use ideals and values ​​as the core criteria for distinguishing enemies and friends, and to exaggerate the threat of non-Western ideals.

Second is to continually invent  imaginary enemies and continue to identify the next Soviet Union.

Third is to treat other countries either as friends or enemies, and boil down rivalries to zero-sum propositions.

Fourth is to believe that the new Cold War opponents can once again unite the West, and that the West can “overwhelm the Soviet Union” again by implementing a containment strategy.

The Cold War mentality is not only obsolete in the globalized, multipolar, diverse world of the information age, but it also runs counter to the morality of the international community. Most countries know all too well about the cruelty of the Cold War and do not want to restart it.

In the face of the Cold War mentality of American politicians and notions about the West’s victory, leaders of Western countries, including Germany and France, maintained strategic vigilance at the Munich Security Conference and did not fall into the diplomatic morass dominated by the “America First” idea. The rest of the world in the era of multipolarity is also reluctant to return to bipolar confrontation and to be forced to choose a side. If the United States persists in promoting a new cold war, then it is not difficult to foresee that Westlessness will become the norm.

The Berlin Wall is a mirror that provides evidence of the painful Cold War memories of Germany. There were no winners. What is most important is to maintain the right mentality, reflect more soberly on this chapter of history, transcend the mindset that sets East and West against each other, work for mutual benefit in the world and compete in a healthy way. Only by so doing can the world jump out of the so-called Thucydides trap and avoid falling into a new negative cycle in which both sides lose.

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