Living through Cold War 1, it seemed like the most horrendously dangerous period in world history. Two superpowers, the US and the USSR, faced off against each other, with the potential to destroy the world many times over. And then, somewhat curiously, Cold War 1 came to an end, peacefully.
Today, as analysts like Niall Ferguson are quick to label the current US/China strategic competition as Cold War 2, it is necessary to have a deep understanding of Cold War 1, and learn any lessons of potential relevance. Thankfully, leading Cold War historian, John Lewis Gaddis, offers many nuanced insights in his book, “The Cold War: a new history”.
According to Gaddis, Cold War 1 was a hopeful experience for humankind, not simply because most of us survived, but because of certain features of the period. He sees the trajectory of Cold War 1 as being “from fear to hope”.
The most lethal weapons were never used
The first curious feature of the Cold War was that these superpowers developed the most extraordinarily lethal weapons, atomic bombs, but never used them. True, there were close shaves, when it seemed that atomic bombs might be employed, such as the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. But as Gaddis argues, the Cold War represents probably the only time in world history where powerful states decided to not use their most powerful weapons.
The second feature of the Cold War was the confirmation of the superiority of democratic capitalism over authoritarian socialism. This had not been evident at the beginning of the Cold War as capitalism had been discredited by the Great Depression, as was democracy when Germany and Japan turned to fascism. The superiority of democratic capitalism meant that over time, the socialist economies fell way behind, leading to popular frustration, especially in the Central European satellites.
And while Stalin was convinced that the capitalist democracies would end up in conflict with each other, the US committed itself to international responsibilities, something that it failed to do after World War 1. In an unprecedented act of statesmanship, the US committed to rehabilitate the industrial economies and democratic politics of Germany and Japan.
Superpower rivalry does not stop smaller countries exerting influence
The third feature identified by Gaddis was the influential role played by smaller or weaker countries at the time of the Cold War superpower contest. Contrary to much received wisdom, the NATO alliance was a European idea, not an American one. The Europeans argued that “if you don’t create a military alliance, we will fall under Soviet influence”. The evolving design of the alliance was at each stage driven by the Europeans. And as Cold War tensions waned, President de Gaulle withdrew France from NATO’s integrated military command, and carved out autonomy in its foreign policies.
The fourth feature concerns restoration of respect for principle and international law. The United Nations and its Security Council may have been a disappointment to its founders as it was caught up in superpower competition, and the abuse of veto power. But in the case of the US, the media played an important role in highlighting a credibility gap with regard to issues like Watergate, the Vietnam War and the activities of the CIA.
While the USSR did not have a free press, the Soviet authorities had to contend with an increasingly educated population. It may have been educated in science and technology to compete in the Cold War, but once educated, it did what educated people do, which is to think for themselves. So, a critical audience was beginning to develop, not publicly, but around kitchen table conversations all over the Soviet Union.
Soviet leadership shifts away from Stalinism
The fifth feature was the gradual shift away from hard-line Stalinism. Khrushchev did not want to be a Stalinist. He deliberately tried to de-Stalinise the country, and make socialism a more human phenomenon. Brezhnev was preoccupied with respectability and reputation, and wanted the Soviet Union to be treated as a normal state. He is referred to as the first bourgeois leader of the Soviet Union.
There was something about the Cold War climate that made it difficult to sustain tyranny over the long haul. Although dissidents continued to be suppressed, they would be put on trial, whereas under Stalin there were no such trials. Economic weakness also softened Soviet policy. As the central European countries were becoming increasingly dependent on Western imports, the Soviets concluded shortly after the Czech invasion of 1968 that they could never again get away with invading a European country without severe sanctions.
Actors move to centre stage of political leadership
The final feature was that individuals mattered. The Cold War was not some great grinding wheel, which ground individuals into the dust. Indeed, during the last decade and a half or so of the Cold War, there was the emergence of distinctive leaders who were critical in bringing the Cold War to an end.
Pope John Paul II was an actor before he became a priest, and to the extreme discomfort of the Soviet authorities became Pope. He demonstrated that the Polish people retained a spiritual reservoir that could not be destroyed by Soviet communism. When John Paul II flew into Warsaw and kissed the ground, it was a sign that communism was dead.
Another actor, was of course Ronald Reagan. He refused to buy the argument that the Russians were 12 feet tall, he was confident that the Soviet economy would implode, he had great faith in democracy, he was committed to the abolition of nuclear weapons and he believed that the detente policy had to be abandoned to end the Cold War, because detente was designed to perpetuate the status quo. In sum, the grand strategist of the Reagan administration was Reagan himself.
Other personalities of the late Cold War period were Václav Havel, Lech Wałęsa, Margaret Thatcher, Deng Xiaoping and of course Mikhail Gorbachev.
Gorbachev was not an actor, but he had a sense of theatre. He had a sense that the Soviet Union could not continue as it had, but he lacked a grand strategy, meaning an objective and some sense of how to get there. So, in the end he was more shaped by those around him, including Reagan and Schulz, than driving events. But Gorbachev was alone among all Russian leaders in history who was unwilling to use force to preserve the state. For Gaddis, this means that he was the most deserving ever recipient of the Nobel peace prize.
Is this Cold War 2?
It makes sense to label the great power competition between China and the US as Cold War 2. It is an adversarial relationship with, as yet, no direct military conflict.
But the US’ Cold War adversaries are extremely different. The Soviet economy was always backward relative to the US economy, and increasingly so over time. China is a far more formidable adversary. Its economy is already bigger than America’s according to some measures, and China is becoming a leader in some technological areas, like Artificial Intelligence.
Interestingly, China’s successful state capitalism has raised questions about the US’ market capitalism, the key to its success in Cold War 1. And the US and Chinese economies are closely interlinked through trade, finance, investment and migration, something which was certainly not the case with the Soviet Union during Cold War 1. While this can help stabilise relations, economic interdependency can also compromise national security and leave countries vulnerable to economic coercion.
America’s open access society can make it much more difficult to protect critical technologies and intelligence. This is because the US is virtually flooded with Chinese students, researchers, business people and tourists, something which was not the case during Cold War 1, when there were very few Russians in the US.
While China and the US have an adversarial relationship without direct military conflict, they are in a state of cyberwar, trade war and information war. Unlike Cold War 1, there seems to be little restraint from either side in the use of these weapons. In sum, Cold War 2 is much more dangerous than Cold War 1.
But the main difference between the two Cold Wars is that while we know the outcome of Cold War 1, we don’t know the outcome of Cold War 2. People from Ronald Reagan to George Kenan firmly believed that the US only had to wait for the contradictions of the Soviet system to play out, but today both Chinese and US systems are riddled with contradictions, and no one can be confident of the outcome. Even so, Chinese President Xi Jinping, the leading personality driving Cold War 2, firmly believes that the “East is rising and West declining”.
John West is author of the recent book, “Asian Century … on a Knife-edge,” and executive director of the Asian Century Institute. He is also adjunct professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University and contributing editor at FDI-Intelligence, a Financial Times magazine. These positions follow a long career in international economics and relations, with major stints at the Australian Treasury where he was director of balance of payments, OECD (head of public affairs and director OECD Forum) and Asian Development Bank Institute (senior consultant for capacity building and training).