The Cold War World Wasn't Simple

Many of the "new" challenges facing the world were around back then, too.

We live in a world of unprecedented complexity, says one of the more common tropes in foreign-policy discourse. Commentators and government officials who subscribe to this view often use the Cold War as their point of comparison. From both sides of the aisle, they assert that the Cold War era, with its bipolar division between Washington and Moscow, was far simpler than our time, with its greater diffusion of power and broad range of “new” challenges.

An example of this tendency came recently, at incoming secretary of state John Kerry’s confirmation hearing at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In prepared remarks, Kerry looked back on the Cold War years:

Nearly 42 years ago Chairman Fulbright first gave me the opportunity to testify before this Committee during a difficult and divided time for our country. Today I can’t help but recognize that the world itself then was in many ways simpler, divided as it was among bi-polar, Cold War antagonisms. Today’s world is more complicated than anything we have experienced.

This conventional wisdom is not wholly wrong, but it is in need of a corrective on two counts. First, the world itself between 1945 and 1991 wasn’t really that simple; rather, Americans often imposed a simplistic framework on it. That is, American leaders and analysts looked at situations around the globe and evaluated them with reference to the long U.S.-Soviet standoff. In many cases, they were right to do so. But in others, this attitude led them to oversimplify or misread the situation at hand, with negative consequences for the United States.

Indeed, the best example of this kind of thinking backfiring was the very subject that John Kerry testified about forty-two years ago: the Vietnam War. As many others have observed, the principal mistake that American strategists made with regard to Vietnam was their failure to recognize that Ho Chi Minh and his North Vietnamese fighters were principally Vietnamese nationalists, rather than Communists whose real allegiance was to international Communism. As Kerry put it in his 1971 testimony:

We found that not only was it a civil war, an effort by a people who had for years been seeking their liberation from any colonial influence whatsoever. . . . We found most people didn’t even know the difference between communism and democracy. They only wanted to work in rice paddies without helicopters strafing them and bombs with napalm burning their villages and tearing their country apart.

But because U.S. leaders saw the unfolding Vietnam conflict in terms of the broader global struggle between Washington and Moscow, they expended much blood and treasure there, seeking to win a war that was in fact more or less irrelevant to the broader course of the Cold War.

Conversely, one of the major successes that the United States achieved during the Cold War came in a situation where Washington abandoned the idea that Communism was a monolith. This was the opening to China orchestrated by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in 1971–1972. In this case, these leaders saw that the PRC’s status as a Communist regime need not mean that it would inevitably be an implacably hostile enemy. The China rapprochement marked a significant shift in the global balance of power, helping Washington to put Moscow on the defensive in the Cold War even as it implicitly denied one of the basic tenets of the Cold War framework for looking at the world: that Communism had to be countered everywhere.

In short, the Cold War view offered a convenient and often a useful way for Americans to make sense of international affairs. But in some instances, most notably in Vietnam, it missed more than it clarified.

The second flaw in this narrative becomes clear when we examine the other argument that is typically made for why the world is more complicated today. Namely, proponents point to the range of security, economic and societal problems that leaders in the United States and elsewhere now have to take into account. As Kerry said last week:

Today’s world is more complicated than anything we have experienced – from the emergence of China, to the Arab Awakening; inextricably linked economic, health, environmental and demographic issues, proliferation, poverty, pandemic disease, refugees, conflict ongoing in Afghanistan, entire populations and faiths struggling with the demands of modernity, and the accelerating pace of technological innovation invading all of that, shifting power from nation-states to individuals.

However, a closer analysis reveals that many of these challenges are not new at all, and some were even worse problems during the Cold War era. Consider a few examples:

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